From Suffolk to the World: Exchange students get to experience the world

Published 7:18 pm Friday, April 21, 2023

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By Tracy Agnew


Young people can change the world, and many young people have had the opportunity to learn how through exchange programs.

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Youth exchange programs are facilitated through a number of organizations, such as Youth for Understanding and Sister Cities International. Over the years, quite a few students from Suffolk have gone on exchange programs to other countries, and students from foreign countries have also studied here.

Sarah Wren, who is now 20 and a junior at Auburn University, went on an exchange program to Italy through Sister Cities in 2018.

“It was something that was going to push me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It seemed like a really cool experience I probably wasn’t going to have the opportunity to do again.”

She visited Portogruaro, Italy, a historic town about 45 minutes from Oderzo, Suffolk’s sister city in Italy.

“It was really cool,” Wren said. “I learned a lot about the differences between northern and southern Italy. I’d like to go back to southern Italy to see the differences.”

Wren said she enjoyed seeing how Italian families actually live and, moreover, it gave her confidence in unfamiliar situations.

“It was a big step out of my comfort zone and being around people I didn’t know,” Wren said. “Being around such unfamiliar territory helped me go to college because I knew I could do that.”

Exchange students come to Suffolk, too. The Persons family — Maryanne and Jeff along with their children — have hosted numerous exchange students through Youth for Understanding over the years. Those students then return to their home countries carrying an indelible part of Suffolk.

“I grew up about 25 miles outside New York City, so I grew up exposed to many more ethnicities than I felt my kids were being exposed to,” Maryanne Persons said. 

Her family also grew up hosting exchange students, so Persons wanted that for her own children. When they had the opportunity to build their own home, they built it with hosting exchange students in mind.

She said the experience was not about making students blend into American culture or even into their family’s culture — although there were rules, like “don’t sit in dad’s chair.” They tried to incorporate parts of their guests’ traditions as well.

“Holidays and food were great uniters,” she said. “That is one thing to be aware of when you’re hosting exchange students — what are their traditions, what will they be missing, and what can you incorporate?”

Persons said her own children benefited from the arrangement as well.

“I think it’s made my kids more comfortable reaching out,” she said. “They’ve got an understanding that we’re basically all the same.”

Florian Langknecht was an exchange student from Germany when he lived with the Persons family and attended Nansemond-Suffolk Academy.

“I wanted to experience another culture and was especially interested to get to know American culture,” he said. “I got to see some of the differences and similarities of our school systems. I especially enjoyed having after-school/extracurricular activities, as that is not usually done in Germany. Lacrosse was a totally new sport to me. I wasn’t a huge help for my team, but I had a lot of fun practicing.”

Langknecht said his experience benefited him then and continues to benefit him today.

“I’ve really improved my spoken English and learned that different cultures communicate differently,” he said. “This is currently benefiting me at work, where I’m interacting with a lot of job applicants for open positions in my team. We get a lot of international candidates whose primary language is English.”

Manuela Ponte, from Brazil, lived with the Persons family in 1999-2000 and also attended NSA.

“I’ve always been into learning languages and cultures and started taking English classes when I was 9,” Ponte said. Her dad learned about the experience of studying abroad from his boss’s daughter and suggested she try it out. Ponte didn’t have to think twice.

“Having the chance to improve my English and to live in another culture for a year sounded perfect,” she said. “Little did I know that the whole experience was a lot more about myself. It was about getting to know myself, and I found the perfect environment for that. Today, I can say that that year both changed me and made me recognize myself, impacted my career and how I raise my son. It’s wonderful to be able to see not just some things, but everything from a different perspective.”