Mike McGraw, center, with a group of former foreign exchange students who attended high school at one time or another in Lee County. The group was holding a foreign exchange high school reunion in Prague

By Charles Petty

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast uncertainty over just about everything for the past year-plus, and that list of uncertainties has included the foreign exchange program in Lee County.

But in spite of the pandemic, planning for hosting foreign exchange students has remained active.<

Lee County Schools has a history of hosting foreign exchange students. The program began with a relationship with the American Intercultural Student Exchange (AMISE), which is technically no longer in existence but has been replaced by an organization known as the Aspect Foundation.

For many years, AMISE and then Aspect Foundation have helped Lee County with coordinating foreign exchange students. From countries in Europe, South America, and Asia, Aspect has been there to facilitate students with host families. It has been part of the Lee County education system since the late 1960s.

The recruiting of families to host these students offers lifetime rewards. More often than not, a special bond occurs between the family and the student. Host families can be married or single, with or without children.

Host families are responsible for providing room, board and a loving home environment for the student. In return, host families and exchange students learn about another culture firsthand, and gain a second family for life. Many of the families maintain relationships with the former students years after the hosting period has ended, and many students keep in touch with their friends who they have met in high school – one group even held a high school reunion in Europe.

Mike McGraw, who has coordinated with both AMISE and Aspect, helps community members know the ins and outs of hosting students.

“Recruiting families to host is mainly done by word-of-mouth,” said McGraw. “Some families will host for one to three years, and their neighbors see the good work they are doing and want to sign up to host the following year.”

In spite of the pandemic, families are still being recruited and high schools are still accepting foreign exchange applications. The hope is that students are still coming with the necessary regulations and testing prior to arriving in the States.

It is important to understand the lifestyle of the student coming to the community and how to find a family that fits that student well, according to McGraw.

“Some kids, for example, really love the outdoors, so you should try to find a family that loves camping and wildlife,” he explained. “Some students who come over really love agriculture so finding a family that is into farming would be beneficial for them.”

For one local family, the experience of hosting students from Europe was a very enriching undertaking. Joe and Yenly Clancy decided to help host students after speaking with McGraw. In the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, the couple hosted teenagers from Denmark and the Czech Republic. In 2014 the student from Denmark, Boyd Oliver William Bonde Boysen, better known as Will, came to stay with the Clancys. He had a passion for acting and participated in the Lee County High School drama department. The second student, Marion Svitek, came in 2015 from the Czech Republic and was an active student at Lee Senior.

For Yenly, the opportunity to host students was a window of learning for her and her family.

“I wanted my kids to experience European culture and learn about other countries views on culture and society in a very in depth way,” she said. “So Joe and I decided to host students from Europe to better understand their views and ways of living.”

Joe Clancy enjoyed getting to hear the unique perspectives that the students brought with them.

“We were able to have conversations and share our views and ideals with the kids, and they did so for us,” he said. “It was an amazing educational experience for all of us.”

For more information about how your family can have the cultural adventure of a lifetime, contact the Aspect Foundation national office at 1 (800) 879-6884, or visit http://www.aspectfoundation.org.

For local information, contact Mike McGraw at (919) 352-2496 or e-mail mmcg310@aol.com.