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Evmorfia Ruhl, 16, is from Ludwigshafen, Germany. Alejandra Varela, 16, and Carmen Alverez, 15, both hail from Spain. Jessie Kim, 17, is South Korean.
But this year, all four girls consider themselves North Carolinians. They are living in the Charlotte area with American host families as exchange students with CIEE, the Counsel on International Educational Exchange.
CIEE’s local coordinator, Trish Hasty, 35, loves overseeing the area’s exchange student placements.
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“These kids have a dream to live in the United States,” Hasty says, and she is happy to be a part of making those dreams come true.
“It is not difficult to be a host family,” Hasty says. “They just need a home and to be loved.”
Jaimie Kissel, 32, decided to become a host family after a family in her neighborhood hosted a student from Brazil. Ruhl is the Kissels’ first exchange student and “it has been a wonderful experience,” Kissel says, noting that her four children, ages 6, 10, 11 and 13, “think it’s great.”
Ruhl, a senior at Hopewill High School, has loved “meeting new people and learning new customs and traditions.”
For Varela, a junior at Clover High School, the highlight of her year has been having a little brother and sister as part of her host family.
Alverez, who is also a junior at Clover High School, also loves her three host sisters. Her older sister in Spain was an exchange student five years ago and told Alvarez it was the best year of her life.
“I wanted that too,” Alvarez says, “and I’m having it.”
The girls greeted their placement in North Carolina with mixed reviews.
“All I knew about the South,” Kim says, “is the KKK. I was worried.”
Varela admits she knew about New York, but had to look on a map to see where North Carolina was located.
But all four have been impressed with how warm and welcoming everyone has been.
Improving their English was an incentive for all four girls, but for Kim, a senior at Porter Ridge High School, improving herself was also a goal.
“I wanted to build my self-confidence,” she says, noting that it took several years to convince her parents that she could do it. “Korea is much more conservative than the United States,” Kim says. “It is much harder for a daughter to go off by herself like this.”
All of the exchange students have found some key differences between their education in the United States and that of their native countries.
Ruhl notes her high school in the U.S. is much larger than schools in Germany. She also finds that U.S. teachers are more interactive than those in Germany and less strict.
Kim enjoys the shorter school days that her high school here entails; in Korea the school day runs from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“My Korean friends are so jealous of me,” she says. Another key difference is switching classes.
“In Spain,” Varela explains, “the teachers change and come to you.”
All of the girls are involved in their schools’ extracurricular activities, trying things that are not available to them in their home countries. Alvarez and Varela are cheerleaders and Ruhl plays softball.
Not all of their experiences as exchange students have been positive.
Ruhl has been dismayed to see how self-absorbed many of her American peers are and how uninformed they are about world events. Alvarez has been surprised at the prevalence of fast food. Kim tired of being asked if she has a sword or whether they have the Internet in Korea.
What they have most enjoyed about their year is how much their eyes have been opened.
“If you’re always in the same place,” Alvarez says, “then you think everyone is like you. It’s good to see how different things are.”
All concur that it has been a life-changing experience.
“It will always stay with us,” Ruhl says. “It is a year we will always remember.”