2017-08-31 / Life in Leelanau

Exchange programs benefit families, schools, communities

By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff


A CAPPED and gowned Clemens Zech, an exchange student from Austria, is surrounded by his three sets of host parents. They are, from left, Jim and Andrea Seeley, Bill Perkins, in back, Lynne Perkins, Lynne Brach and Michael Jarvis. Zech went to Suttons Bay Schools in the 2010-’11 school year. A CAPPED and gowned Clemens Zech, an exchange student from Austria, is surrounded by his three sets of host parents. They are, from left, Jim and Andrea Seeley, Bill Perkins, in back, Lynne Perkins, Lynne Brach and Michael Jarvis. Zech went to Suttons Bay Schools in the 2010-’11 school year. Wayne Wunderlich says nothing will change a high school student more than an experience in a foreign exchange program.

“We always tell the parents of the outbound students, ‘Please do not expect the same kid to come back home,’” said Wunderlich, who for several years has worked with exchange students through the Suttons Bay- Leelanau County Rotary Club exchange program.

“This will not be the same person coming back. This changes the kids forever.”

Andrea Seeley of Suttons Bay agrees. Seeley and her husband Jim are currently hosting their fifth exchange student — Angeline Denega of Zimbabwe.

“They’re more mature, more worldly,” Seeley said. “They understand other cultures and they’re more tolerant.”

But that’s not why she does it.

“Personally, it’s just exciting to have people come from other cultures,” Seeley said.

Exchange programs also promote world peace, said Wunderlich, in the sense that the students have spent a year bonding with people who live in what was once a strange country to them.

“Do you think they’re really going to be wanting to be shooting at each other the next year?” he said. “We all have the same things in common. We all want to live in a safe place, we all have family .... This program is so unique and so great. This is a cultural and educational exchange.”

Cindy and Don McMullen of Leland have twice hosted exchange students through the Aspect Foundation.

“Overall it’s a great opportunity to bring diversity and culture to Leland,” said Cindy McMullen. “It gives you the opportunity to get to know people in another country without having to go there.”

And while hosting an exchange student is a big responsibility, it’s also an amazing opportunity for the school, which is one of the reasons her family hosted the students.

“Leland’s pretty small,” McMullen said. “It benefits the whole community, not just us.”

The first was a girl from Norway who came in 2010, when the McMullen children were in the fourth and sixth grades. The second was a boy from Italy who came in 2015.

McMullen said having an exchange student when her own children were younger was a better fit.

“She went out and made her own friends,” McMullen said.

The Italian boy they got more recently, however, was very introverted and socially awkward.

“I kept thinking he’s going to grow out of this, but he never gained his footing,” McMullen said.

That put a lot of pressure on the McMullen children, who were teenagers by then, to provide the youth with friendships and a social life.

This year there are three Rotary exchange students in Leelanau County. Maja Krutch is coming from Denmark and will attend Suttons Bay Schools; Jose Antonio Acosta Ramos is coming from Venezuela and will attend Leland School.

Denega has been at Suttons Bay Schools since mid-school year and will be going home in December.

The Rotary program is a true exchange program — one student in and one student out, Wunderlich said.

As an exchange officer he can’t actually host a student, but he does take them to all of the several conferences they must attend during their stay in this country. The first of this school year will be held over three days in September in Petoskey.

The conferences are meant to help the inbound students get to know each other and not feel so alone in the foreign country they find themselves in.

Many of the students, no matter where they are from, find that they have more in common than not. And there is an instant bond.

“They are all identical in the sense of what they say and think and do,” Wunderlich said. “They’re no different. They are all teenagers.”

They also help those American students interested in being exchange students to decide where they’d like to go.

The Rotary program participates with about 44 different countries, Wunderlich said. But there are several that are not on the list, he said, including most Middle Eastern countries. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran are not on the list, but many students go to Turkey, he said.

“We don’t send kids to any place that has any kind of combat going on,” Wunderlich said.

Wunderlich says it’s hard not to love the kids.

“I have piles of emails and letters from these kids that bring tears to my eyes.”

Seeley said one of the reasons she likes the Rotary Exchange program is that students typically stay with three different families over an 11-month period, so each family has them for three to six months.

It is also not necessary for the host family to have children and definitely not high school age children, Seeley said.

“We’ll keep doing it, even though our kids are all gone,” she said.

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