• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

Solon exchange students find a home away from home

SOLON– Iowa is a long way from the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
But for Aizhamal Nazhimidinoval and Ernis Sultanov, Solon has come to feel a lot like home; at least for now.
The two foreign exchange students are juniors at Solon High School (SHS) this year, as part of the World Link organization and its international FLEX program. Aizhamal is living with the Paula and Jeff Sears family, and Ernis with the Kris and Jerry McAtee family.
The private, non-profit World Link agency was founded in 2002 by a couple in Kalona and now implements its cultural exchange program with participating countries in the former Soviet Union, the Balkan region, Northern Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. World Link– with its mission of “Exchange with a Purpose”– has a variety of international exchanges programs, and most are sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agriculture Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Barb Messer, of rural Solon, serves as the World Link coordinator for this area in Eastern Iowa.
“The whole purpose is to teach tolerance and loving bonds throughout the world,” Messer said. Because World Link chooses students who represent the various ethnic, social, religious, and economic groups in their countries, students are expected to give presentations that break down those prejudices, she added. “When these kids come in and everyone sees they are regular teenagers, it brings awareness.”
However, participants are actually far from regular; they are among the brightest, most motivated and accomplished students in their home countries, and are expected to carry on a high level of achievement, leadership and involvement while here in the United States. Messer said 40,000 students apply annually, but only 1,200 are chosen.
To be selected, students go through a three-phase application process, submit written essays, take English proficiency tests, complete interviews with officials in their home countries, obtain recommendations from teachers and other professionals and have good grades. Once chosen, they must commit to the requirements of the program, which includes giving cultural presentations, maintaining a certain GPA, participating in extracurricular activities, completing 100 hours of volunteer service work, and following the rules and routines in the homes of their host families– even doing household chores.
“At World Link, we give the students parameters, so they aren’t just here whooping it up and have a good time,” Messer said. “They are learning skills to take back and make their countries better places socially and environmentally.”
Both Aizhamal and Ernis have been exceptional ambassadors for Kyrgyzstan. Though from the same country, the two did not know each other before becoming involved in the program, and it was coincidence that brought them both to Solon, living within one block of each other.
Aizhamal is not the first foreign exchange student the Sears family has hosted; they did host college exchange students while living in Grinnell. Inspired by other Solon families, Paula Sears approached her sons, Braydon and Ryan, and husband Jeff, with the idea.
“We talked about what a different experience it would be,” said Paula. “It was a fairly easy process once we called Barb. We filled out a handful of forms, went through a brief orientation, and she took care of the rest.”
Host families receive portfolios of prospective guests and select males or females based on their profile information.
Aizhamal arrived in Solon Aug. 20, ready to start the school year with Ryan, a sophomore, and eighth-grader Braydon. She chose to come to America for a variety of reasons, she said.
“To share my culture, to learn American culture, to study America’s education system. It’s different from our system,” said Aizhamal.
At Solon High School, her class load included pre-calculus, English, Spanish, Algebra II, American government and biology– subjects she will need to move on to a university in Kyrgyzstan when she returns. There, students typically attend school through ninth grade, and attending 10th and 11th grade is optional. From there, students take an entrance exam and choose tracts for study at the college or university level. Aizhamal plans to study business in an American university, she said, “to contribute to the economy of Central Asia,” and Ernis tentatively hopes to study engineering.
School in Kyrgyzstan takes place six days a week instead of five. Learning foreign languages is emphasized; proficient in Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek and Chinese, English is Aizhamal’s fifth language. Ernis speaks Kyrgyz, Russian and English.
Ernis said freedom of choice is not part of Kyrgyzstan’s curriculum like it is here.
“We have to take all the (specific) classes. We don’t really have electives,” he said. “We have a lot of universities and colleges, but after graduating from them, it’s hard to get a job, even in my country.”
In addition to academics and volunteering, the guest students are encouraged to try extracurricular activities, which Aizhamal said are not widely available in Kyrgyzstan. Here, she volunteers regularly, did Color Guard during football season, plays saxophone in concert band, sings in the choir, did cheerleading and was on the dance team, all while maintaining good grades.
Similarly, Ernis has been involved in a number of activities beyond academics. He choose to try archery, play in the band and take up weightlifting, and will join the soccer team this spring; a popular sport in Kyrgyzstan, soccer was already familiar to Ernis. He also volunteers at the Methodist Church and at the Solon Public Library.
“I’ve gone to churches and did presentations on discrimination,” he added.
Both students said they experienced no discrimination from students or others in Solon; in fact, quite the opposite. James McAtee, a junior at SHS, said his peers seem open to new students.
“It’s definitely welcoming,” said James. “They might have one day trying to settle in, but usually they find people to talk to right away, and a couple of weeks later, they fit right in and are just part of the school.”
SHS senior Lillie McAtee agreed.
“I think it’s because we are a smaller town, so everyone knows everyone. If someone new comes, we all know about it and it’s easier to welcome them,” said Lillie.
In the three weeks before school started, Ernis had a chance to meet James’ and Lillie’s friends.
“All of them had met him and talked with him before school, so by the time he got there, he already had friends all over the place,” said Jerry McAtee.
Aizhamal, like Ernis, felt very welcomed.
“Everyone was really kind to me,” she said. “In the first days, they helped me find classrooms. We also became close friends.
Ryan said he believes SHS may be different than typical American high schools.
“I think Solon has something special that you probably wouldn’t see in your average school, like (people) stepping up to help a new student like Aizhamal, or someone being bullied,” said Ryan.
In many ways, the foreign exchange experience becomes one of reciprocal learning, according to all the family members involved.
Braydon Sears said hosting Aizhamal opened his eyes about the differences between education in the United States and elsewhere, and he better understands what a brave thing it has been for Aizhamal to leave behind her home to come here for a year.
“It would be a lot of stress and work and focus on this one thing,” Braydon conceded.
The McAtees have continued to learn much about Kyrgyzstan from Ernis, as well.
“I think it has brought us closer as a family,” said Kris, and Lillie thinks it comes from paying more attention to their familial communication.
“We’re working together more, taking about things more, and including everybody,” said Lillie. “I feel like, if something comes up, it’s been easier for us to talk about it.”
For the Sears family, it has been an opportunity to both show Aizhamal attractions in Iowa but also the rest of the country. They’ve hiked the Macbride trail, visited Eagle Point Park in Dubuque, and taken her to a Hawkeye game and tail gate party. They also took a trip to Washington, D.C. over Thanksgiving, where they were able to visit national landmarks, monuments and museums as well as governmental facilities.
“We went through the Capital, the House of Representatives and the Library of Congress. I learned a lot about American government,” said Aizhamal. Spring break will take the family to San Fransisco.
Ernis has also learned much about Iowa through the McAtee family. In the summer, they took Ernis to the Iowa State Fair. Introducing him to a lot of new foods was especially fun, said Kris.
“And he went to his first movie, ever,” she added. It happened to be the American blockbuster, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Through his presentation and volunteer work, Ernis won a trip to Disney World, and the family plans to take a trip to South Dakota before he leaves.
Equally important to experiencing American culture, Ernis and Aizhamal will also be asked to share their knew-found knowledge when they return home.
“I wanted to see another side of the world, and now I have more goals to make some changes in my country,” said Ernis.
“I will tell them about the people, their kindness, about Iowa City, …about corn,” Aizhamal laughed. “I will tell them about school and the culture, and that you can spend time having fun and also be useful.”
Messer said the program teaches participants not just ambassadorship but also how to use what they’ve learned here to improve themselves and relationships between their countries and the rest of the world.
“When they go back home, there is a full alumni program, and we stay in touch with them to see what things they are doing,” said Messer. “Believe me, they are doing crazy-amazing things! They all say this program has changed their lives… they get better scholarships in their schools, and they have more power to change society in their own countries.”
And to those considering hosting students, the McAtees, Sears and Barb Messer offer a similar message: it’s a win-win for everyone.
“I think it’s a good idea for people to try this because everybody needs to understand how small the world really is,” said Jerry. “Usually, it’s not individuals who have problems (getting along), it’s the governments that have the problems. It teaches everyone more tolerance and understanding.”
Because the international exchange program brings kids of different nationalities together, it can mean attending orientation sessions with people from countries that might be at war with one another.
“We need this now more than ever,” said Messer. “There is so much hate going on in the world.”
“I would emphasize that people take a look at this program, and not rule it out,” said Paula. “It’s a great educational experience to open your home to someone and learn about another culture. We wouldn’t use any other program. I’m really impressed with World Link’s system and what they stand for.”
Jeff agreed.
“It’s a great program and she’s a great kid, so it made it easy,” he said.
“And they are a great family,” Aizhamal added.