Exchange students bring world to district

NATRONA HEIGHTS, Pa. (AP) — Pat Sampantanarak will see snow for the first time this winter.

There’s a good chance when she does, she’ll be giggling. It’s something she does. A lot.

Pat, 15, has never seen snow in her native Thailand, where she lives in Bangkok, the nation’s capital. She’s staying with a family in Brackenridge, and is one of seven exchange students — all girls — attending the Highlands School District this year.

This is the first time Pat has been in the United States.

“I want to learn a different culture and try new foods,” she said. And, “I have to improve my English.”

This is the most exchange students Highlands has ever had at one time, district spokeswoman Jennifer Goldberg said. They’re here through AFS Intercultural Programs , a more than century old nonprofit based in New York City.

In addition to Thailand, the students hail from Pakistan, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Belgium. They arrived earlier in August.

“The AFS program is a perfect example of an authentic way for our Highlands students to learn about various cultures and get to experience the world without leaving home,” said Highlands substitute Superintendent Monique Mawhinney. “This program allows students the opportunity to experience the cultural differences and work together to gain respect for each other’s values and beliefs. They get to experience, first-hand, the intercultural understandings; not just learn about them through books.

“With having seven students join our Highlands family this year, it will only expand the learning opportunities for both the foreign exchange student and our Highlands students,” she said.

Kathy Harenski, a nurse at Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison, is the AFS liaison coordinator for Western Pennsylvania. A 1967 Har-Brack graduate, Harenski had been an exchange student herself in 1966-67, having gone to Germany.

AFS was founded by World War I and II American Field Service ambulance drivers. They believed future conflict could be prevented through cross-cultural exchanges.

“They decided that having exchange students come and live with American families would be a good place to start,” Harenski said. “Imagine, after World War II — German students coming to the United States and living with host families and being welcome in communities. It was just a revolutionary idea.

“It promotes peace, international understanding, personal growth, interpersonal coping skills and a real global awareness,” she said.

Starting with Har-Brack, Highlands has had exchange students through AFS since 1960, Harenski said. Usually there are two to four each year.

There are so many this year, Harenski said, because of the school district’s support and that there are families willing to host them.

“Seven is a lot of students to support and coordinate,” she said.

There are 2,041 foreign exchange students from 90 countries in the United States through AFS this school year, said Rebecca Scharler, a team development specialist with the organization. About 500 U.S. students are overseas.

“The United States is the number 1 spot students want to come to,” she said. “They want to see the land of the free and the home of the brave. They want to know about American culture. They want to know what it’s like to be an American teenager and what our schooling is like.”

Of the 86 in Pennsylvania, 35 are in Western Pennsylvania.

In addition to Highlands’ seven exchange students, other school districts in the Alle-Kiski Valley have one each: Plum, Knoch and Fox Chapel Area.

Elsewhere in Allegheny County, Pine-Richland and Gateway also have one; Mt. Lebanon has two; and Mars Area and Pittsburgh both have three. In Westmoreland County, Norwin and Penn-Trafford each have a single exchange student, while Greensburg-Salem and Hempfield each have two.

Scharler said seven is the most students she has ever seen in one school district.

Highlands “has been amazing to work with,” she said. “They’re so open to our students.”

The Highlands’ students, families

While they range in age from 15 to 18, the students at Highlands will all be classified as seniors and attend the high school.

That they’re all girls was just by chance, Harenski said.

Pat is staying with the Bollinger family. She is the third exchange student that Kaci and Ray Bollinger have taken in.

They got started hosting because their daughter, Emily Crawford, 17, wanted to go abroad herself, but her parents wouldn’t let her.

“So I was like, ‘Why don’t we host?’ We still get to interact with a different culture,” she said. “If I can’t have the opportunity, I wanted to give someone else the opportunity.”

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