Finishing up her third and final year as a foreign exchange student in the United States, Nanami Higa has memories she will remember for the rest of her life.
Her first school in Blackfoot, Idaho, was a big adjustment being away from her parents in Japan and not knowing the language in America.
“My English was so bad,” she said, laughing. “I had a roommate from Thailand in Idaho, and she helped with English. Her English was much better.”
Since that was a good experience, she chose to return to America and spent the next school year in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
“My host family (in Idaho) was very nice. I really loved it. They were like my second family. I wanted to meet a lot of people from here,” Higa said.
Again, she had a good experience and thought she might as well return to the United States for her final year of high school.
Jennifer Miller, a regional manager for International Student Exchange, matched her with Mary Anne Schneider to be her host mom in Indiana.
Higa is wrapping up a very busy year at Trinity Lutheran High School in Seymour. There, she was in the school musical, joined choir and earned a blue ribbon at a state contest. She also was part of the Euchre Club, was inducted into the National Honor Society and took art and religion classes for the first time.
She recently attended prom for the first time, and later this month, she will have another first: High school graduation.
“That’s just so crazy,” she said, noting it’s exciting and sad at the same time.
Looking back on her three years as an exchange student, Higa said Trinity has been the most memorable because it’s the only school where she is the only exchange student.
Next school year, though, Trinity is accepting three foreign exchange students. Miller is in the process of finding a host family or individual for Aitana, a 15-year-old girl from Spain, Tom, an 18-year-old boy from Belgium, and Federico, a 16-year-old boy from Italy.
The most crucial host characteristic is that they are willing to treat the exchange student like a member of the family, not a guest, Miller said.
Beyond that, the host must be vetted by ISE, pass a background check, provide room and board and two or three meals a day and exercise parental responsibility to ensure the student’s well-being.
“You have to have a huge heart as a volunteer family to bring these students into your home, but (the students) have to be very brave to trust that you’re coming into a stranger’s house and that they are going to take care of you and they are going to make you part of the family,” Miller said.
This is Miller’s 12th year of being involved with ISE, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that facilitates exchange programs for students in the United States and abroad.
She has worked with local families and individuals who have hosted students at Seymour, Brownstown Central and Crothersville high schools in Jackson County and even other parts of the state. She and her husband, Scott, have hosted six students.
“We’re working all through the spring and summer for students who are coming in August, and then as soon as school starts, we’re working on kids who are coming in January,” Miller said.
Some students just come for one semester, while others stay for a whole school year. In certain foreign countries, their school year runs from February to November, so they may split two school years in America and be at two schools, Miller said.
Students are randomly assigned unless they specify which state they want to experience. Miller’s job is to match their interests and hobbies with a host family or individual that fits their personality and interests.
For Miller, it has always been interesting as a host to allow the student to experience things for the first time.
“To be able to take them to eat at a new place where it might be our favorite or to go over to Purdue’s campus and walk around, just anything that you do but then be able to have them do it and them get to experience and see them appreciate it, that is what is so meaningful to me,” she said. “I’ve repeated a lot of the same things with the six kids we’ve hosted because they are just such fun experiences and you want them to appreciate it.”
From a teaching standpoint, Miller said it’s good for the other students at the school to be around someone from another country.
“We have a lot of kids who never leave Jackson County, they never leave Indiana. They just don’t have that opportunity,” she said.
“To bring our exchange students into our schools, we’re a very diverse community anyway, but to actually see that these kids who live in these other countries are teenagers just like them, they may speak different languages and eat different foods, but at the end of the day, the same fun parts of life and even challenging parts of life are the same no matter where you’re from,” she said.
The host also benefits from learning about another culture, but perhaps most importantly, they develop a lifelong friendship with the exchange student and their family back home.
“That is very important to build those lifelong friends. I think that really makes a difference, too,” Miller said.
Higa is Schneider’s fifth exchange student to host. Others were from Thailand, China, South Korea and Switzerland.
“My niece, Celina, went to Trinity, and when she was there, she was matched up on the tennis team with an exchange student, and they became very good friends,” Schneider said. “Celina spent a lot of time with her, so that kind of got me interested in it.”
She saw a post by Miller on Facebook looking for hosts, and after an hourlong phone call, Schneider said, “All right, sign me up.”
“I’m also a teacher, and so I really appreciate sharing the culture with my students,” she said. “I teach first grade at White Creek Lutheran in Columbus. All of (the exchange students) have come and we’ve done lessons on their home countries and taken in food, so I really like to incorporate that into the classroom, as well.”
Like Miller, Schneider said it’s neat seeing their first experiences in America, including the girl from China catching a fish for the first time and taking in life outside the city.
“Especially for the Asian students, the big fields of grass and the stars, they just literally stopped in their tracks,” Schneider said. “Two of them, when we came home from the airport and it was dark, they got out of the car and squealed. I thought something was wrong. There are so many stars. Because of the pollution and lights of the city (in their home country), they have no idea. There’s just something about that excitement. I guess it’s the teacher in me.”
Even though this is Higa’s third time in America, Schneider said she still has experienced new things, including coloring Easter eggs, riding a horse and going to a wedding reception.
Other highlights have been volunteering at Cloud of Witness Ranch, going to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, during spring break and attending Indiana University women’s basketball games.
“Volunteering and community service is part of our program. We try to encourage that,” Miller said. “Some kids, they do their bare minimum and they are good with that, and then you have others (who do more). … What an opportunity to be able to do that and give back in that way.”
Higa plans to head back to Japan on June 8. The school year starts in April there, so she’s going to wait until the spring of 2023 to go to college. She said her goal is to become a flight attendant and travel internationally, which will give her an opportunity to see even more places and continue speaking English more.