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American Field Service students home away from home for the holidays

Wauwatosa exchange students adjust to Christmas abroad

Dec. 18, 2012

Wauwatosa students involved in the foreign exchange program known as American Field Service, or AFS, are with their families for the winter holidays. Not their biological families, but their host families.

Although traditions vary from family to family, they celebrate the holidays in roughly the same manner that any other family would. There is a gift exchange, time spent with relatives and festivities.

Some students are too busy being immersed in an entirely new culture to miss their families.

Maria Pelletta, a French foreign exchange student at East, said that while she loves her family, she's too busy with American culture to miss them.

"I like it here," she said. "There's so much to do here so there's no time to think about home."

The same held true for Elisa Shapson, a Wauwatosa East graduate. While in Germany she was so busy with the culture and customs that she didn't have time to be homesick during the holidays. That's not to say she doesn't love and miss her family. She's looking forward to visiting them from Madison this school break.

Students are discouraged from too-regular contact with their host families for fear of homesickness. Rather than stay inside and talk with their families, students are asked to immerse themselves completely in whatever country they decide to visit.

Cultural differences

Although Maria comes from a westernized country, there are some stark differences in holiday traditions. American music and decorations stuck out most for her.

"Here you have Christmas radio and I've never heard of this in France," she said. "There are a lot of decorations and lights outside and there are not so many in France."

Shapson also noted the music. She said that while they have Christmas songs in German, the music isn't played nearly to the extent that it is here. She added that in her experience, the Germans focused more on traditional aspects of the holidays, such as Advent wreath lighting and leaving shoes outside for Saint Nicholas.

Language barriers were temporary for the two. Maria had a hard time with English for roughly a month. It took Shapson about six months before she fully understood German. Both agree that they learned considerably faster being immersed in a foreign language.

Sometimes, Shapson thinks in German and has to recall the English equivalent to German words.

Matching families

Both Wauwatosa schools participate in the AFS program, a nonprofit entity that works closely with the schools and state departments to pair families with exchange students.

Wauwatosa's AFS branch is always seeking host families. The families must jump through several hoops in order to host a student: They must complete a criminal-background check, have an interview with the AFS branch and everybody, including any children, must be willing to participate in the program. The family must also go through training before they can be matched with a student.

The students coming from other countries must meet certain requirements as well. They must have a solid background in speaking English, a clean background check and must either have graduated high school or be willing to retake a year in some cases.

Several factors are considered when choosing student-family pairs. Allergies, religious practices, backgrounds, hobbies and family involvement are a few examples of the myriad pieces considered when pairing students with families.

Each family is assigned a liaison officer when the match is made. The liaison must meet with the student face-to-face once a month to make sure they're adjusting. If the match isn't working out, the student can be transferred to a different family.

Lasting connections

The Wauwatosa AFS Chapter President, Maripat Monahan, has hosted two students, both hailing from India. She considers them to be family.

"It's about learning about a person from another culture that can engage with you in a friendly environment and literally become a family member and introduce you to their perception of the world they come from," Monahan said.

Maria, who has family in the United States, wanted to come here because she believes the United States is a world leader. She wants to continue her studies in America, eventually studying law and perhaps living in America for the rest of her life.

"I really like the American lifestyle," she said. "I feel like people, when at work, are more relaxed."

Shapson went to UW-Madison after graduating from Wauwatosa East. The entire level of her dorm speaks German, making her quick friends. She is going to be living in a house with those friends next year and wants to go to Germany with them sometime in the future.

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