There are 2,000 foreign students currently living and atrending school in the United States and Canada through the International Student Exchange Program.
Nichole Lee, with the ISE, told Sulphur Rotarians, Wednesday, that of the 200 students in Louisiana 130 of them are in Calcasieu Parish, and 20 of those are attending Sulphur High School.
“Be sure to shake hands with or hug (Sulphur High School) Principal Robert Barrentine,” said Lee.
SHS was already facing an increase in enrollment because of the industrial expansion and when asked to accommodate 20 more, Barrentine agreed. “He made it work,” she said.
Lee said the 20 students from abroad were last minute placements, resulting from California wildfires that had taken the homes and even lives of host families initially matched with the students.
One of the reasons for such a high local concentration, according to Lee, is that “in Southwest Louisiana we’re just that kind of people.”
The ISE is a 501c3 non-profit, designated by the U.S. Department of State to run the program for the “purpose of cultural enrichment and public diplomacy”, according to their website. Students, between the ages of 15 and 18, travel on a J-1 visa, good for one year in the states. All paperwork, health insurance, travel costs, and monthly incidentals are covered by the students’ families. Lee said families save money for years before being able to send a child overseas. All told, the program costs about $10,000.
Beyond the financial sacrifice, most students are actually losing a year of education. Lee said with the exception of Brazil, Spain, and Italy, most countries won’t accept education credits from the United States, as they are not on par with the standards of their home country. “But many families feel that an education in English is worth more than a college education,” she said. Exchange students must have eight years of English language classes and their countries equivalent of a 4.0 GPA before being considered. “These kids are very strict on themselves,” she said. “They have goals set for themselves.”
Lee first became involved in ISE in 2014, when she was asked to host a child. At the time she had one daughter in middle school and another in elementary. “Oh my gosh, my house is messy, I holler at my kids, we’re not that kind of family,” Lee said she recalled thinking at the time. She said the woman who called told her that parents holler in every country. They just do it in different languages.
Lee was a little concerned about how her youngest daughter, who has high-functioning autism, would respond to the change. After Lee broached the subject with her, her daughter left the room and came back soon after with a drawing of the four members of the Lee family and a fifth person. “It didn’t have a face, it was just a person,” said Lee. So it was decided.
Lee said the experience was life changing. “I set out on this journey thinking that I was going to help a student, I was going to help a child, our family was going to help a child” she said. “Little did I know that child would teach us so much.” The Lee family hosted a young lady named Tulia from Brazil.
“We ended up keeping her. She didn’t want to go home,” said Lee. “We used to joke throughout the year that the cops were going to come because we’re not letting her leave.” Tulia asked if she could stay and was told she had to ask her parents. “She said she had already asked them and they said yes,” said Lee. Tulia is in her final year of computer science studies at McNeese and just married a Sulphur boy to boot. “You can’t tell me I didn’t birth that child,” said Lee. “That kid is mine. She has amazing parents in Brazil. She has two sets of parents. We joke all the time that, because she’s a princess, that God knew she needed two sets of parents to afford her.”
The Lees also hosted Marco, a boy from Spain, who was just supposed to be placed with them until a more permanent family could be arranged. “But my kids came to me and said, ‘mom, can we keep him?’ I had to explain that he’s not a puppy,” she said. The Lees have visited Marco in Madrid, and he’ll be back in Southwest Louisiana to visit, with his whole family, in time for Mardi Gras and gumbo weather to celebrate his birthday.
The Lees are currently hosting Ming, a girl from South Korea. Lee said she wasn’t sure she could manage another student, as she had both hips replaced last year.
“But when I started reading her profile, I just knew, something in my gut told me, this was my kid,” said Lee. Ming has also decided to stay in the U.S. After her last year of high school in North Carolina, she will attend McNeese State. “She knows Southwest Louisiana is going to be her forever family,” said Lee.
“I didn’t set out to find the students,” said Lee. “I feel like God sent them to me for one reason or another.”
For more information about hosting an exchange student visit iseusa.org.