|Students, host families expand their horizons through AFS|
|Students, host families expand their horizons through AFS|
|Written by Todd Mishler/Walworth County Sunday|
|Friday, 18 November 2011 11:38|
AFS exchange student Urara Miyazaki enjoys a silly moment in her bedroom at her host family’s home. Miyazaki is staying with Elliott and Monica Los of Delavan and attending Delavan-Darien High School. Terry Mayer/staff photo.
DELAVAN — It’s all about breaking down barriers, whether they’re social, cultural, economic or linguistic. And in most cases, it involves all of the above.
American Field Service, or AFS, provides intercultural and international learning opportunities for students, families, schools and communities. And in turn, the organization’s hope is that the positive strides made in communication and better understanding at the local level will help create a more just and peaceful world.
That’s quite a goal, but every year more than 13,000 individuals in 40 countries participate in volunteer-based AFS programs.
And that applies to schools in Walworth County, including the Delavan-Darien School District, which boasts one of the oldest foreign exchange efforts in the area and the state of Wisconsin.
This year, two Japanese students are enrolled at DDHS — Yukari Itakura and Urara Miyazaki — and they and their host families have accepted the challenges of such an undertaking, overcoming obstacles and celebrating successes as they learn from their differences and similarities.
Elliott and Monica Los have several advantages. First, they’ve hosted students from Ecuador and the Netherlands the past two years. And second, Monica is from Peru and traveled and worked in the U.S. before the couple met in 2003, at Grand Geneva’s Timber Ridge Lodge, where Elliott works.
“I studied political science and international studies, but before AFS, my only experience with different cultures was with life in college, not high school like these girls,” said Monica, who works with the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee. “I was young and so afraid about my role as a mother, but I’ve gotten a lot of help and support from my parents and in-laws. But everything goes both ways, you learn from the student, and the student learns from you.”
Elliott is a Williams Bay native, so he has a so-called home-field advantage, but he had much more to learn from a cultural standpoint.
“Spending five years in the Chicago area was the closest thing I had experienced to international culture, so it has meant a lot of give and take,” said Elliott, who is taking classes at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and is planning to enroll at UW-Milwaukee at some point to work on an engineering degree. “Monica has had a lot more to give because of her travels, but it’s a learning experience on both sides.”
Urara lives in a suburb of Tokyo and, despite her shyness, is picking up words and phrases in both English and Spanish, so communication barriers are starting to fall.
“Urara likes math and science, and she’s enjoying an art class,” Monica said. “She is taking Spanish in school, and we’ll be taking her to Peru during Christmas and New Year’s. But she’s working on her English.”
Dave Block said it’s all about taking small steps and making progress. He should know. Block and/or his family have been involved in foreign exchange programs for nearly 30 years. He has hosted three children and been president of the local AFS chapter during the past five years since returning to Delavan.
“It’s all about bridging gaps,” Block said. “We’ve done a lot of traveling, and for us this is about uniting the world and understanding each other. But beyond those more esoteric reasons, the idea is to learn more deeply about another culture, and the same goes for the kids.”
Dawn Meinschock and her daughters — senior Rory and freshman Kali Froncek — are hosting Yukari Itakura, who like Urara, is a junior.
Meinschock said her first experience with an AFS student has been stressful at times, but she wouldn’t trade the past two months for anything.
“It was never a thought to do anything like this, until a family friend got involved,” Meinschock said. “But we had the room and it became perfect timing. The three of us looked through all of the potential students’ bios, and we all had Yukari at the top of our lists.”
Itakura’s family lives about 90 minutes from Tokyo, and she’s got a much better grasp of English and has jumped into several activities, including yearbook and the world languages club. She’s also joined her American sisters on the Comets’ swimming team and participated in the WIAA Division 2 state meet last week in Madison.
“Her English is fine; she doesn’t give herself enough credit for how she’s doing,” Meinschock said. “Swimming gave us an immediate connection. But we’re getting out more and doing things that we take for granted but are a big deal for Yukari, like taking the train down to Chicago. We’re seeing these things through her eyes.”
Monica and Elliott Los said they’ve benefited immeasurably from their experiences and hope to remain involved as much as possible in the future.
“There are so many stereotypes about each culture, so you have to break those down,” Monica said. “I know I learned a lot and see the United States much differently than when I first came here. It’s a huge, huge umbrella … it’s much more than the typical white family from the suburbs. You can’t define it until you live here.”
However, those life lessons won’t continue unless more people take that leap of faith to participate, Block said.
“We had four (AFS) students last year and we’re down to two this time,” Block said. “We usually have four or five, so things seem to be fizzling a bit. I think it’s just a trend in society that people are getting less involved and that’s disappointing. I think many people are happy where they’re at and their attitude is that they don’t want to look beyond that. I know it’s expensive to send kids overseas. But if the interest is there, we work on raising the funds.
“The thing is getting the word out, because it’s a neat program and a wonderful experience for the host families,” Block added. “I know that Monica still keeps up with the kids she’s hosted; she’s still Mom to those kids.”
She and Elliott say that continuing those relationships is as important as building them in the first place.
“You learn about yourself much better,” Monica said. “It’s about giving back to these children, and knowing that you can have a big impact on another person’s life.”
Her husband couldn’t agree more.
“Urara is learning to put full sentences together, and I can tell when I’ve picked her up from school the last few days that she is meeting people and really starting to get along. There are obviously certain things that you’re not used to, but this has been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and one that’s well worth the time.”
“I would recommend the AFS program to anybody,” she said. “It’s been a phenomenal experience. I have three daughters. We’d love to keep her.”