Foreign exchange students swap cultures with hosts, schools

By Staff
A LONG WAY FROM HOME Larissa Cesar of Brazil, left, Thaisa Yamamura of Brazil and Jorge Corral of Spain point to their home on a globe at the Northeast Lauderdale High School library. They are among nine foreign exchange students attending high school this year in Meridian and Lauderdale County. Photo by Marianne Todd/The Meridian Star
By Steve Gillespie/The Meridian Star
Aug. 28, 2001
Sixteen-year-old Jan Heyer has a professional football team in his German hometown of Hamburg, but he had to travel all the way to the United States just to play the game.
But football isn't the only reason Jan here.
Heyer is one of nine foreign exchange high school students who have arrived in the Meridian area during the past two weeks just in time for the start of the 2001-2002 academic year.
Heyer and seven other students from Europe, Central America and South America are part of the PAX Academic Exchange program. The ninth student is from Japan and part of a program called Youth for Understanding International Cultural Exchange.
Sheila Ethridge of Meridian, Heyer's host for the school year, is one of the local coordinators for PAX and has hosted exchange students for the past two years. She said hosting an exchange student is a memorable experience.
Program screens applicants
Exchange programs screen and profile students who have submitted applications. Area coordinators then spread the word that students are available; potential host families go through an application-screening process before being matched with a student they want to sponsor.
Like Ethridge, Eva and Jesus Vargas of Toomsuba wanted to experience "parenthood" as well. The Hispanic couple originally is from Texas; their PAX student is Jorge Corral, 15, from Spain, who is attending Northeast High School.
Eva said that Jorge likes to eat, enjoys sports and watches a lot of news and music videos on television.
In Marion, Lacy and James Heim are playing host to PAX student Larissa Cesar, 16, from Brazil. The Heims exchange student will join their four own children, who range in age from 1 to 11.
Student misses home
Although Cesar admits she misses home and her ballet classes she's taken lessons for 14 years she insists she is not "homesick." The Heims currently are looking for a way in which Cesar can take lessons while in Meridian.
The most interesting part of American culture to her so far?
Sakura Arai, 16, of Japan, the area's only YUF exchange student, had a different take on American culture. Since arriving in town two weeks ago, Arai said that her favorite things have been rock 'n' roll, Wal-Mart and French fries.
Arai is staying with her host family, Amy Joyce and Glen Johnson of Meridian. The Johnsons have three grown children and have hosted four Japanese students through YFU in the past.
They became interested in hosting students through friends who were affiliated with the exchange program. Now the Johnsons are regularly visited by students they have hosted and keep in touch with them by e-mail.
Friends talk fast
Arai, a student at Clarkdale Attendance Center, said she couldn't understand her friends the first day of school because they were all talking at once. Arai has studied English for four years and understands the language well one-on-one.
Still, she sometimes relies on an electronic, hand-held translation device she brought with her.
Arai said she wanted to come to the United States to improve her English and learn about U.S. history. When she is grown, she would like to help poor children by being a volunteer.
Some of the things Arai wants to do before leaving the United States include seeing area wildlife, visiting the space center in Huntsville, Ala., and seeing Disney World. The Johnsons have it all down on their agenda.
Jan Heyer's interests are more immediate playing high school football. Heyer said his relationship with his new football teammates is similar to his relationship with basketball teammates back home in Germany.
Coming from a city like Hamburg with 3 million residents, Heyer admits Meridian sometimes seems like it's in the middle of nowhere.
Steve Gillespie is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3233, or e-mail him at