In an uncertain world, it must take some courage and the resiliency of youth to venture halfway around the world as a teenager to study abroad.
Chanisara “Far” Jantarat has spent her junior year in high school at William Byrd as a foreign exchange student from Thailand. She arrived here last August after a two-day flight as part of the International Experience program (iE-USA) which pairs host families with students from other countries with the philosophy that “learning about other cultures and languages is the best way to eliminate international fears and prejudices. Stereotypes and prejudices can be lessened, and often erased, after sharing a year in another culture.” A noble goal these days. Far will fly back to Thailand after school is out in June.
Cammie Williams, who has taught French at William Byrd High School and now serves as the Coordinator for ELL and World Languages for Roanoke County Schools, is the local coordinator for the International Experience program.
Far said her purpose in studying abroad was to improve her English language skills, both her comprehension and her fluency. She began taking English classes, as required in Thailand where Thai is the official language, when she was in first grade and was one of the top three in her class in her home school. However, she said that when she got to the United States, she “didn’t understand anything being said.” There was “a big difference in English class in Thailand where English is the second language and using English daily in real life in America.”
She said she needs to be more fluent in English for her higher education goals in Thailand. In her home country, secondary students must choose either an academic or vocational track in their final high school years and she has chosen an academic focus in a language program so adequate language skills and fluency are imperative.
Far said she was only a little apprehensive about coming to the United States, mainly faced with traveling alone– at age 16– on the long flight. She had traveled some in Asia, but had never visited the United States before. Her father also had some qualms about her being so far from home, but gave in to her request to be part of the International Experience program.
She already had been living away from her family as she attended boarding school in Thailand, so homesickness was not a novel experience.
Far said she felt some culture shock when she first arrived and expects to feel culture shock again when she returns home. She has discovered that “life in United States is very different than in Thailand with lots more freedom here.” She doesn’t prefer one over the other; they are “just different cultures.” She has kept in touch with family and friends in Thailand through video calls.
Her host family this year has been the Wu family– Michael and Julia– who have had two daughters attend William Byrd. Their older daughter, Melissa, graduated with honors from William Byrd last year and attends the University of Virginia. Their younger daughter, Megan, is currently a student.
Julia Wu said they had never considered participating in the foreign exchange program before and became involved this year through the urging of Megan, who wanted some company with her older sister leaving for college. Megan had learned about the International Experience program from Cammie Williams.
Julia Wu said being a host family has been a very good experience and that there haven’t been any communication issues with Far. Wu is Taiwanese and speaks Chinese, which Far speaks to some extent and is working to improve in addition to her English. The Wu family speaks Chinese to one another at home and English to Far. Wu says she has noticed Far’s English improving over the course of the year, and also her Chinese. She is able to catch some of the humor when the family speaks Chinese.
The Wus have enjoyed learning about Thai culture. Mrs. Wu has even attempted to cook some Thai dishes, which Far said were quite good.
Far said she has had no problems communicating with her host family, or with the students and faculty at William Byrd, who have been very supportive and welcoming.
Her classes at Byrd include United States History, English, French, Art, Earth Science, PE, and College Algebra. She said students in Thailand take more subjects each semester than here in America. Schools in Thailand also run on a different schedule, opening in May and ending in March with long holidays in October, March, and April.
Her main difficulty in her academic classes is that what she hears or reads in English, she must translate into Thai to be understandable and then back to English to respond.
Her plans are to attend college in Thailand; she is currently interested in becoming a flight attendant for the travel opportunities and to improve her language skills even more. Her parents are both bankers in Thailand.
Far said there have been no negatives in her foreign exchange experience, “it has all been great.” The best aspects of her year here have been her host family and the individuals at William Byrd.
She has joined the tennis team. Otherwise, her activities revolve around those of the Wu family. She said they are very easy to get along with and not overburdened with rules– “They just tell you the things you should do.”
She said has received invaluable support from Williams; they spend time together as there are no other exchange students nearby for Far to socialize with. The Wus have also found Williams to be very helpful in working with their family and Far to keep everything running smoothly.
Far said she encourages other students to take part in the foreign exchange program, where you can learn not just a language but life lessons.
“You won’t be the same person as when you first came here,” said Far. “You will be changed, more open-minded, learning to listen to others’ viewpoints.”
To participate in the International Experience program, students go through an extensive application process including a background check and indicate the region where they would like to live and their goals and interests. They are matched up with a host family who has also gone through a stringent process of criminal background checks, interviews, and home visits. The location of the host family determines which high school the international student will attend.
The exchange students are in grades 9-12, usually between 15 and 17 years of age. They must be students in good standing with a working knowledge of English, which they will have studied in their own countries.
For more information on the International Experience program, contact Cammie Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.