Anne Kirsch was at home when the phone rang on a recent morning, and she heard words not spoken in decades: “Hello, mom, it's Shabbir. I'm in town.“
The surprise caller was Shabbir Potia, a foreign exchange student from India who stayed with Kirsch and her family in Westhampton Beach 33 years ago. Potia, in town with his family in May, was anxious to visit. An hour later he, his wife, Maria, and their youngest daughter, 16-year-old Alefa, were at Kirsch's door.
Potia — now 49, tall and thin in a red plaid shirt and blue jeans — looked just as Kirsch remembered him. Though they spoke now and then after his six-month stay at her home, they hadn't seen each other since 1982, when Potia graduated from the University of Delaware. Kirsch's daughter, Pam, went to the same school, and Kirsch would bring them home-cooked meals and fresh-baked cookies when she visited.
The Potias, who live in Mumbai, were in the United States this spring for their son's college graduation in Texas, but they added trips to Disney World, Manhattan and Long Island. As Kirsch and the Potias reminisced over sandwiches at a quaint shop in town, talk turned to the 2013 wedding of the Potias' eldest daughter. They invited Kirsch, who said she hopes to attend the nuptials in India.
Host families say Kirsch's story is familiar, exemplifying a connection that officials of exchange programs attribute to the lasting bonds forged by program participants.
“For most, the friendships last a lifetime,“ said Kathy Edenzon, Northeast regional manager of Ayusa, a nonprofit cultural exchange organization based in San Francisco. The organization promotes global learning and leadership through foreign exchange and study abroad opportunities for high school students in the United States and abroad.
“For some, host families travel years later to attend their student's wedding or baby's baptism, and students come back to America for their host siblings' graduations and weddings,“ Edenzon added. “It's just like having a family member that lives abroad.“
Claudia Pace can attest to that.
“The impact is indeed very long-lasting and may emerge in unexpected ways far down the line,“ said Pace, of Stony Brook, a Long Island area representative for Youth For Understanding () USA, a nonprofit international exchange organization based in Bethesda, Md. “There are many ways in which my own experience informed some of the choices and things I have done throughout my life.“
Pace, who went on a summer exchange to Denmark in 1976, learned to speak and write Danish at a level that, for years, allowed her to correspond in Danish with her host family. She says her experience inspired her to pursue an academic career in international relations “back when such a thing was not nearly as popular, or even extant, as it is now.“
Pace later studied international business law at University College London and worked with a private school on a two-year exchange project in Poland.
As a YFU volunteer for the past two years, Pace says she has “a special connection” with the Danish students who come to the United States.
“I realize that, while rusty with the language, I remember a lot more Danish than I would've thought after all this time,“ Pace said, “and I can recall my time in Denmark as if it were yesterday.“
Generations of exchanges
The influence that exchange programs have on families, who have the opportunity to handpick the students they host, comes in many variations.
In Janice Schief's case, a legacy spanning three generations developed from a single link. For the past year, Schief, of Islip, and her two grown children hosted Soeren Moelleken, 18, of Germany, who departed for his homeland on July 6. Schief is the host sister of Soeren's father, Christoph, who was in the program with Schief's family more than 25 years ago.
“I was 14 years old when Soeren's father, then 17, stayed with us,“ Schief said, “and when he came back a couple years later to visit, the bond just kept going.“
Soeren was born in Brentwood while his parents were on a working visa in the United States for 18 months, and though they resettled in Germany, Soeren and his parents have been back a few times to visit. Schief, daughter Jessica, 25, and son Paul, 23, have been to Germany over the years. To further the families' connection even more, Schief's niece spent time in Germany as Soeren's au pair several years ago.
Before he left in May, Soeren, an award-winning photographer for his high school paper, said he was “both happy and sad” to go. “But our families have a long history, and we'll see each other again soon.“
Indeed, the Schiefs will travel to Germany in October to celebrate Christoph's 50th birthday.
A global connection
The Sullivans of Smithtown were a replacement host family for 17-year-old Tae Hyun Kim of South Korea, who came to them days after Thanksgiving because his first family was a poor fit, said his host mother, Anitra. The Sullivans and their two high school-age daughters have been videoconferencing with Tae Hyun since he left in June.
“Not only did Tae Hyun become part of the family,“ Sullivan said, “but we developed an appreciation for South Korean culture. And because he's a representative of South Korea, we feel like we now have a connection with that country.“
Some Long Islanders say this global connection has even broader implications.
“Having representatives of other nations visit ours and vice versa is a small way for people to try and understand everybody in this world and hopefully avoid conflict,“ said Tom Kerr, Rotary Youth Exchange chairman for Suffolk County, a member of the Westhampton Rotary Club for 30 years and host father to 20 students since 1986.
“Diversity is very important, and becoming aware of other people's cultures not only allows you to become more appreciative of other cultures, but of where you come from as well,“ said Karen Gocoul, a native of South Africa who lives in Valley Stream with her husband and two children. The Gocouls hosted Maria Banda, 15, of Spain, until July 23 and will take in Iris Kempenaars, 16, from the Netherlands, in mid-August. “Becoming diversified also breaks down the barriers of prejudice.“
While many students come into homes that already have children, exchange programs give some childless hosts a chance to be parents.
Todd Marks of Plainview has hosted German students for the past two years and just days ago welcomed his third student, Paul Rosenthal, also of Germany. Marks' first student, Harald Krause, who arrived last year, recently returned to Plainview for a three-week visit. Marks, who is gay, said he is grateful for the exchange program because it allows him to experience parenthood.
“I tried foster care, but they never called me back, and I don't have the money for adoption, so this worked out perfectly,“ he said.
Marks hasn't visited Germany yet, but he said he plans to go next year to attend Harald's high school graduation. Parenting seems to suit him.
“I plan on hosting for as long as I can,“ Marks said.
Opinions vary when it comes to the popularity of exchange student programs in the Northeast. YFU said more than 350 international students will be in the Northeast region this year. Annually, the organization hosts about 2,000 international students from more than 60 countries.
For the upcoming school year, Ayusa has placed 290 students in the United States, including 57 in the Northeast.
According to the 2010-11 International Youth Exchange Statistics compiled by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, New York State ranked 11th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in the number of incoming foreign exchange students. Last school year, the state hosted 921 students from abroad.
“Compared to the other parts of the country, the Northeast lags a little behind,“ Edenzon said.
“There's always room in your heart for more people,“ said Jayne Paskoff of Lynbrook, who last year opened her family's home to 17-year-old Ryosuke of Japan. " .?.?. we're all different, but we're also all the same.“
Foreign exchange student programs vary depending on the organization, but the expectations and requirements of host families are virtually universal.
“The biggest misconception is that you must have high school-age children when you host a high school exchange student. But nothing could be further from the truth,“ said Kathy Edenzon of San Francisco-based Ayusa.
Some organizations, such as Ayusa and Youth For Understanding (), expect that the student stay with one host family the entire school year, while other organizations, such as the Rotary Club of Westhampton, prefer to rotate students every few months.
-- Provide a safe and nurturing home environment;
-- Genuinely love children;
-- Have a desire to learn more about a different culture;
-- Provide their student with three meals a day and their own bed;
-- Pass a criminal background check;
-- Have their home and living conditions approved by an exchange organization.
For more info visit: ayusa.org and rotary.orgyfu-usa.org