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Forging global friendships

Foreign exchange students bring the world to local families

Foreign exchange student Sharvil Patel (right), 15, sits down for dinner Tuesday with the Wagnaar family of Cortland. Patel is the ninth exchange student the Wagnaar family has hosted.
Foreign exchange student Sharvil Patel (right), 15, sits down for dinner Tuesday with the Wagnaar family of Cortland. Patel is the ninth exchange student the Wagnaar family has hosted.

Shane and Donna Wagnaar have children all over the world.

Their children live in the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and most recently India.

These particular children aren’t biological, nor are they adopted. They are current or former members of the Academic Year in America’s foreign exchange program. The Wagnaar family has hosted several students through the organization, including 15-year-old Sharvil Patel, who currently lives with them in Cortland.

“We’ve grown to love him like our child,” Donna Wagnaar said of Patel.

Patel, who attends DeKalb High School, joined his host family of nine, including a mixture of internationally adopted children and one biological child, in August and will stay with them until June.

Wagnaar said their experience as a host family always has been very positive, which is why they continue to welcome international students into their home.

“For all of us, I feel that we are learning more about countries and cultures and in turn how we’re really no different,” she said.

Julie Fowler, the local coordinator of Academic Year in America, said students such as Patel make her job rewarding. Fowler is currently supervising 22 students, ages 15 to 18, who have come from all over the world to experience the American lifestyle. 

The Academic Year in America program offers year-long or semester-long programs for international students. Patel is part of the Youth Exchange Study program, which was implemented by the U.S. Department of State after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to help bring the world closer together, Fowler said. 

“They believe the kids that are here are future leaders in their country ... and we’re the country everybody wants to compare to,” she said.

The grant-funded program is highly competitive. Patel was one of 15,000 applicants chosen to study in the U.S. Fowler said each
student with whom she has worked has been great.

“They are just thriving and wanting to learn everything there is about America and why it’s so worthy,” she said.

Two more foreign exchange students in the area are Felix Mack and Helena Groepper, both of Germany, who attend Sycamore High School through the Rotary Club’s youth exchange program.

Mack and Groepper have spent their senior year involved in various extracurricular activities to experience the average American teenager’s way of life. 

Mack, an avid golfer, joined the Sycamore High School golf team, which is how he met most of his friends. Groepper, a member of the sewing club and adventure club, had a more straightforward approach to meeting people. She said she randomly walked up to people in the school hallways and introduced herself. Everyone was kind and receptive of her, she said.

Adjusting to American culture was hard at times, though, Mack and Groepper said.

“It’s a lot different than Germany,” said Groepper. “But I think I’ll be a lot more open-minded and outgoing [after this experience].”

Katie Denius, a junior at Sycamore High School, and her family recently hosted exchange student Camila Andrade from Argentina for six weeks as part of the Rotary Club’s short-term exchange program. In June, she will live with Andrade’s family for three and a half weeks.

Denius said hosting Andrade was an eye-opening experience for her, and she’s looking forward to seeing her friend again soon.

“You get really close with them for the time that they’re here,” she said.

Fowler, the local coordinator of Academic Year in America, said being a host family is an invaluable experience, which is why she is glad her own children have been able to be a part of it.

“My kids don’t see borders around our country,” she said. “They don’t see just the United States. They see the world because we’ve brought the world into our home.”

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