Not just one or two, but five foreign exchange students representing four different countries are enrolled at Homer High School this year. Their visits to Homer represent the efforts of three different exchange programs.
With thousands of miles separating them from home and family, these five students are busy taking advantage of opportunities they’ve been offered, learning from what they’re experiencing and settling in with their host families.
Get them all in one room and the closeness among this international group is clear. One starts a sentence that another finishes. One voices an opinion and is immediately greeted by high-fives from the others. Ask them how they’re feeling with the holidays approaching when they’re so far from home the light-hearted talk comes to a sudden stop.
Then Alehandro Carrillo-Cano, 16, from Mexico, who is here through AYUSA (A Year in the USA) exchange program, says, “I’ll tell you what we are.”
“Food-sick,” all five laughingly shout, referring to missing the foods of their homelands. Immediately the room is once again filled with chatter as they list what they miss seeing at the dinner table.
“I want some real Chinese food,” said Tiffany Khosasih, with an emphasis on “real.” Asked for specifics, the 16-year-old Indonesian who is here through Rotary’s exchange program, said, “Fried rice and everything being spicy.”
Chiara Scoppetta, 16, of Italy and here through the AFS (American Field Service) exchange program, said she misses her mother and grandmother’s lasagna and gnocchi. Clementine Devos, 18, also with AFS, of France misses breads and cheeses. Alehandro misses “typical Mexican food. Not Taco Bell. Not fast food.” He follows that with a detailed, mouth-watering description of mole with rice and pork served in a red sauce. Spaghetti with clams, a dish his mother makes on Sunday, topped the list of foods missed by Manual “Manu” Spigno, 17, of Italy, who is here through AFS.
“But I also like what Mom cooks,” Manu said, referring to his host mom, Cindy Koplin.
Staying with Alex and Cindy Koplin, Manu’s reference to Koplin as “mom” reflects the closeness that develops between exchange students and their host families.
“It kills my heart that she calls me “Dad” and Naomi “Mom,” said Charlie Walsworth. He and his wife, Naomi, are host parents for Chiara. “It’s very endearing.”
Aside from missing “real” food from Italy, Mexico, China and France, the students are finding plenty they like here. Manu’s new favorite foods include ribs, steak and fish. All five agree they have fallen in love with the area’s natural beauty: orange sunsets, a full silvery moon on a wintry night, the mountains and beaches, “and a sky that actually is blue,” said Tiffany, who lives in a city with a population of 12 million.
Chiara comes from an Italian village only a couple of hundred miles from Rome, but with a population of only 300 people.
“For me, Homer is big,” said Chiara, the one in the group who wanted to come to Alaska because of the landscapes. “If it was cold, I didn’t care.”
Activities the students have become involved in are as varied as their backgrounds. Chiara played volleyball and is eager to be involved in cross-country skiing. Tiffany sings with the school choir and tried basketball, but a past knee injury made her decide managing rather than playing was the best way for her to be involved in the sport. Alehandro plays soccer, swims, plays hockey and is determined to learn to ski. Manu swims, dives, plays hockey and was involved in soccer.
Although Clementine, whose host family is Lyn Maslow and Dave Lewis, described herself as “too lazy, so I just hang out all the time,”
“She practices with the DDF (Drama, Debate and Forensics) team and is getting more confident in her English,” said Maslow. “She’s very literary and likes acting and making videos. Athletics aren’t her thing. She’s way more artistic, creative.”
This isn’t the only place in Alaska, or even the United States, these five students will be seeing. Chiara and Clementine traveled with the Walsworths to Fairbanks for the Thanksgiving holiday and saw Mt. McKinley. Manu traveled with the Koplins to Sitka and saw whales.
“That was paradise for me,” he said.
Playing competitive soccer has kept Alehandro traveling between Homer and Anchorage and he is planning a trip to New York. Tiffany has seen much of Southcentral Alaska and may have an opportunity to visit Barrow in the spring. Chiara is going to Arizona for Christmas. Manu is going to Hawaii for spring break. Clementine is going to San Francisco.
Being a host family means “every day is different,” said Charlie Walsworth. “(Chiara) is a such a nice young lady. My only objection: She studies too hard.”
This is the first time the Koplins have been a host family.
“We just wanted that enrichment in our family,” said Cindy Koplin. “(Manu) is great. We’re loving having him.”
Nancy Deaver is Alehandro’s host mom. She also is the community coordinator for the AYUSA.
“Some things we grew up with, like Halloween, are normal for us, but completely new to him,” she said. “And there are (language) things when he looks at me and goes, ‘What’s that?’ but his English is probably better than some of ours.”
Including Clementine, Maslow and Lewis have been a host family four times.
“We felt it was nice to have some cultural diversity in our home,” said Lynn Maslow. Of Clementine, she added, “She’s doing great. It’s so much fun to talk to her. She’s filled with deep ideas. I hope people enjoy her.”
For Steve and Angie Shank, becoming host parents was an idea presented to them by their son, John, who is currently a Rotary exchange student in Istanbul.
“I knew I’d miss him terribly and I was concerned about that, so he suggested it would be good for us to take in someone,” said Angie Shank. “It has absolutely worked out perfectly. Tiffany is wonderful. She’s a delight to have around. … I would highly encourage anyone not to hesitate to take in a kid. They want to hear what our country is like and what an awesome opportunity for us to show them.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.