By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia
"The people here are so different," said Melnic, a 17-year-old student from the smallish town of Calarasi, in the heart of Moldova. "People come from so many different countries. I had an idea it would be like this, but it still surprises me."
That's the way international student exchanges are supposed to work, said Jeff Buckley, state coordinator of 4-H international and citizenship programs.
Melnic is in Georgia through the Future Leaders Exchange, a program through which high school students in former Soviet states spend a school year in the United States. She's a sophomore at Greenbrier High School near Evans, Ga.
'Biggest dream'"My biggest dream since the second grade was to come to America," Melnic said, who calls her host parents, Bill and Carol Jackson of Evans, "wonderful."
Her favorite Georgia place: Six Flags Over Georgia. Her favorite activity: caving. Her biggest surprises:
- Volunteerism and community service. "In Moldova," she said, "people tend to get money for everything they do."
- School is easier but more interesting, with more group activities and projects and teachers more focused on motivating students.
- There is a minimum alcohol drinking age, so drinking is a bigger deal to kids here than in Moldova, which has no drinking age.
Four exchange programsFLEX is one of four exchange programs through Georgia 4-H, Buckley said. The other three are all through the Labo Party, a youth development group similar to 4-H in Japan.
The Labo programs include both inbound and outbound one-month summer visits, he said. A third program brings a Japanese student to Georgia for a year.
Host families for exchange programs must sign up by May 1. Those who want to host for a month must have children between 10 and 20 years old. Those who want to host either a FLEX or Labo student for a whole year, however, don't have to have children.
Kayla Perry, a Madison County High School freshman, has been in all three Labo programs. Her family hosted a girl, Misato Horiuchi, for a month in 2003, then hosted a boy, Jun Katayama, for the 2003-04 school year.
Parents, too"It was a wonderful experience for us," said Donna Perry, Kayla's mom. "We learned so much about Japanese culture. And they learned a lot about our culture. Misato was from Tokyo, and we live on a farm. She just loved going trail riding."
Last summer, Perry traveled to Japan for a month. "I never even thought about going to Japan until Misato started talking about it," she said. "Going there was pretty scary. But after the first few days with my host family, I started to relax."
Before it was over, she bubbled with enthusiasm. "I had a blast," she said. "My host family showed me so many things. They were wonderful."
At 6 feet tall with blonde hair, the 15-year-old Georgian attracted attention. "Everybody there was Asian," she said. "Even their immigrants were from Asian countries, so I really stood out."
'Hello!'That turned out to be a good thing. "Everybody speaks some English there," she said, "and they all wanted to say the English words they knew to me. They were very friendly."
Her biggest surprise was her host dad's taking her to "meet his grandmother." The revered grandmother's ashes were at a shrine, where her host family kept incense burning and brought rice each morning and tea each evening.
"They knew I was a Christian and respected that," Perry said. "But they introduced me to their religion, too, and I respected that. We all understood each other."
To learn more about international exchange programs through Georgia 4-H, contact Buckley at (706) 542-8756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or go to www.georgia4hinternational.org and click on "Exchange Programs."
(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)