Anchalee Chinwitayakul and Anna Neumann may have been in the United States for only a month, but both already know their favorite American foods.
“Wendy’s,” Chinwitayakul said with a smile.
“I like breakfast – bacon, eggs and pancakes,” Neumann added.
Chinwitayakul and Neumann, both sophomores at First Presbyterian Christian Academy, are two of eight foreign exchange students taking up residence in Liberty and Long counties this school year. All eight students have come to the States by way of Youth For Understanding, an international, “intercultural” exchange program.
According to its website, YFU is a non-profit, international educational organization that was founded in 1951 as a way to help “students all over the globe find themselves, expand their world and discover intercultural opportunities through studying abroad.”
“We’ve had probably 30 foreign-exchange students over the last five or six years,” FPCA principal and exchange-program coordinator Shannon Hickey said. “It’s a great opportunity for our kids.”
Hickey said that FPCA hosts an average of four exchange students per year. This year, there are five — four from Germany, including Neumann, and Chinwitayakul, who hails from Chumphon, Thailand.
Two of the other three exchange students are attending Liberty County High School, while the third is enrolled at Long County High School, according to Robert Wilson, area coordinator for YFU.
Wilson said he and his family got involved by hosting an exchange student. He said the positive experience spurred him to become more active with the organization.
As an area coordinator, Wilson works with schools to enroll potential exchange students — a requirement that participants must meet before arriving.
“Students can’t come in-country unless they have a school assignment,” he said.
Though Wilson said it’s not too difficult to get students enrolled, finding willing host families is trickier.
“Obviously, it’s scary,” Wilson said. “You’re bringing another teenager into your home. But, what people don’t realize is that we get the cream of the crop. They don’t send the average student. They send their most gifted students to us.”
According to the YFU website, potential participants undergo a rigorous application process. Students also must participate in orientations before coming to the United States and have English proficiency and good grades — something evidenced by Chinwitayakul and Neumann, who have studied English since childhood.
“I started learning English at (age) 7,” Chinwitayakul said. “We take it every year.”
“I started English in the first grade,” added Neumann, who also speaks French, Czech and German.
Though Neumann and Chinwitayakul both excel academically, they have struggled with one subject this year — British literature. Hickey attributes this to the different educational methods of the students’ native countries.
“Most Asian countries just do rote memorization,” Hickey said, noting that there is not as much focus on critical thinking or analysis. “Other than the obvious culture shock, it’s an education shock as well.”
“The school is different,” Neumann agreed. “I thought it would be easy here, but it’s not so easy as I thought.”
One person who can attest to the exchange students’ academic prowess is Bob Sprinkel, Liberty County assistant administrator and host father to Chinwitayakul.
“She’s been struggling a little bit with British (literature) and U.S. government, but she’s excelling in all other subjects,” Sprinkel said.
In addition to academics, exchange students are encouraged to get involved in extracurricular activities, both through school and the community. Chinwitayakul plays on FPCA’s varsity volleyball team and is considering tennis and soccer in the spring. Neumann is on the cheerleading squad and also wants to play soccer and tennis next semester.
Potential host families also undergo a stringent application process, which includes home inspections and background checks. One major difference between YFU and other exchange programs is that YFU is completely voluntary — that is, host families receive no stipend.
“It’s a fantastic program,” Sprinkel said. “We’ve really been blessed. I can’t tell you how sweet (Chinwitayakul) is.”
Families interested in learning more about hosting a foreign exchange student can go to www.yfuusa.org.