With the new school year fast approaching next month, seven German exchange students, ages 15 to 18, signed up to come to America are excited and hopeful that a family across the sea will welcome them into their home.
"I think a lot of people are apprehensive about how an exchange student is going to fit in with their family," said Ahwahnee resident Tony Lassos, who hosted 16-year-old Jannik Hartmann from Germany last year with his wife Michelle and sons Hunter and Chase through non-profit Inter-Ed, International Education Exchange based in Fresno/Clovis. "But the way it works is you get a profile of the exchange students, and you can see whether they match with your own kids. Most of these kids want to make the most of this experience, their families are paying money for them to come over here and they want to be involved in as much as possible. Jannik was so polite and such a great kid in our house because he wanted to make it work ...
"Some people are worried about the whole language barrier, but in many foreign countries, like Germany, they start learning English at a very young age and they speak English really well by the time they are in high school."
"I would say he learned just as much about America as I learned about Germany from him," said Hunter Lassos. "It was like a cultural experience without having to travel, which was cool. And on top of that, we met his family and everyone and we'll be friends for life."
Along with the natural beauty of the Mountain Area and Yosemite National Park close by, Cheryl Gomes Williams, area representative Inter-Ed, said past exchange students loved Yosemite High School because the kids are "so friendly and warm to them and just so giving -- they just feel like stars up there."
"Since I was a little girl, I dreamed of living in the United States one day," said Vanessa Mihalec, a German exchange student who attended Yosemite High School last year and stayed with area host parents Janell and Roy Strong. "To be an exchange student and spend a whole school year in another country has been the best decision of my life ... You're not only improving your language, you're getting the chance to meet new people and discover a totally different culture. Overall, the experience taught me to be grateful, independent, open-minded and to see things in a different way."
Williams recently went to Germany to visit the exchange students and their families. To host a student, the application process includes filling out paperwork with Inter-Ed and a background check and home visit, Williams said. Once authorized to host, families receive a detailed profile of each student, including videos of many. If a family chooses one, Inter-Ed checks in often with families and the exchange student throughout the school year to offer any assistance, and students are bound to rules, like keeping good grades and no smoking or drinking.
Exchange students have their own insurance plans and spending money, and Inter-Ed takes them on a vacation to Disneyland. And if an exchange student proves to not be a good fit later, host families are not obligated to keep them, Williams said.
Inter-Ed can also place exchange students with host families in most regions of California, and families don't have to be your typical "mom/dad, cat/dog, brother/sister," she said.
"I would definitely recommend being a host family," Hunter Lassos said. "It's one of those things where you'll have a cultural experience and possibly make a friendship that will last a lifetime."