Lison Rousseau, a student at West Ranch High School, has only been in America for less than a year, but she already feels at home. Through the AFS Study Abroad program, she gets to experience living in Santa Clarita as one of its own residents for a year.
“I like my family, and it’s crazy how much I’ve changed,” Rosseau said. “On a personal level, I’m way more confident. Speaking English is way easier and I feel less pressure now, and less anxious.”
Lison is a foreign exchange student from France and originally came from a small town in the northern part of the country. The program is national, but several families in Santa Clarita have the opportunity to host students, said Sarah Freifeld, a volunteer liaison.
The AFS program enables students from the United States to go to foreign countries, and for parents in the U.S. to host their own. High school students can participate in short term programs that only take up a summer, or longer year-long ones that are eligible for school credit. Participants pick a country and are paired with a host family and high school based on a survey where a person describes themself and the program matches based on personality, Freifeld said.
“It’s a tremendous thing to have in your back pocket,” she said. “There are statistics to show that (many) U.S. ambassadors have been exchange students in some capacity.”
Freifeld herself went to Italy in the 1970s through the program, which began in the 1940s. Another Santa Clarita volunteer liaison, Shannon Schnittker, also went through the program to Japan in the 1980s. Now the pair help families and their new host children adjust to life in southern California.
Five families in the Santa Clarita area are hosting students from Thailand, France, Italy, Japan and Latvia, Freifeld said. The students are here from August to June and attend local schools.
Prior to embarking on their journeys, participants go through an orientation where they meet regional students also going to the same country, and they pick up some of the basics of the languages and cultures of different countries. Each year, more than 2,300 international high schools from over 90 countries participate.
Students can choose from specific language-learning programs or options for immersion. Freifeld said there are also full scholarships available.
Sarah Schnittker, 19, went to Japan for a 3-week program a few years ago. Now her family is hosting Amane Seki, a student from Japan. Amane said she was better at reading and writing English before coming to California. Now, she said she speaks English with much more ease.
Kirills Cernadjevs, a Latvian student at Valencia High School, said the cultural nuances of America were fascinating to look at.
“It’s even easier to think in English,” he said.
“The program is designed to provide you the resources and what you need to make you successful on these trips. As long as you’re willing to learn, you’ll have an amazing time,” Sarah said about her own experience. “It is scary, I’m not going to lie. You have no idea what to expect, but it’s a complete immersive learning experience.”
Host parents Matt Schnittker and Tim Lounibos said it was an awesome challenge to have a host son or daughter in their home and exploring – and celebrating – cultural differences.
“You get to watch this person experience all these normal things in your daily life as if they’re new and exciting,” Schnittker said.
Lounibos said from his experience, he and his family found it easy to flow into a routine with his new host daughter.
“For us, it was seamless to have Lison in our home,” Lounibos said. “From the minute we met her, she was our daughter.”
For more information on the different options for specific programs, visit afsusa.org, or contact Freifeld at firstname.lastname@example.org.