ELIZABETHTOWN — Imagine signing up to host a foreign exchange student, and, when she arrives from another continent, finding out you may be distantly related. For a Bladen County family, the anomaly happened.
The Barnes family is comprised of Bryan and Lisa and their three children — Emily, 18, Olivia, 16, and Lee, 11. The Elizabethtown residents can trace their heritage to the Netherlands, a densely populated country sitting in a V-shaped pocket above Belgium and Germany and having extensive northern coastline along the North Sea. The family’s home is full of Dutch knickknacks — wooden shoes, figurines, costumes, and the like. They celebrate St. Nick’s Day in December and dress up for other Dutch holidays and traditions.
“We’ve always been American Dutch people,” said Lisa.
When it came time, then, for Olivia to decide on a senior project, incorporating the Netherlands into it was a given. She began researching the steps and requirements for hosting a foreign exchange student and, by August, the family was welcoming Netherlands native Karin Borgman, 18, into their home.
Karin, Emily and Olivia all attend East Bladen, where Karin is thriving.
“She’s the top student in her American history class,” remarked Lisa. Borgman calls the American educational system “very different” from its Dutch counterpart and “much easier.” She has been involved in Beta Club, Keyettes, and attending football games, and is enjoying the whole experience.
As the family got to know Karin and her home country, they discovered a remarkable coincidence. Borgman’s hometown of Franeker lies in the Freisland province of the Netherlands, a name already known to the Barneses.
“There’s a cemetery in Iowa where a lot of family members are buried, and it’s called East Freisland Cemetery,” Lisa explained.
“It’s really weird, but there’s a chance we might be related,” Olivia piped in.
Borgman, who easily passed the English test required for participation in the exchange program, said she was advised not to have any expectations of America before her arrival. A few things did surprise her, however.
“The food portions are so big,” she said with wide eyes. “What you have as a small meal here would be a large portion in the Netherlands. And everybody is so friendly — they say ‘Hey’ and give you hugs.”
Though she has learned a lot about American culture, traditions, history, society, and a variety of other erudition, Borgman says the larger lesson from her experience is about humanity.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that even though we have a lot of differences, we really are similar,” she said in perfect English.
“Sharing the American experience with an international student is a unique opportunity for the average American to profoundly impact the life of a teenager, and provide them with a positive, transformational experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives,” said Sherry Carpenter, executive director of Ayusa, the company through which Karin was placed with the Barneses.
The life lessons aren’t relegated to just Karin, however.
“Hosting an exchange student is a life-changing experience – for the student, the host family, and the host community,” said Connie Lawrence, community representative for Ayusa and the local contact for southeastern North Carolina. “Foreign exchange students are a window into another culture and a great way to travel the world without leaving your home. Suppose you’re a family whose child is dreaming of Japanese culture — chances are, the average family is not going to make it to Japan in their lifetime. You’re bringing a piece of that culture to your child and teaching them different cultures.”
For an even broader view, Lawrence said her non-profit organization is actually funded in part by a grant from the U.S. State Department, which sees the program as a diplomatic way to promote peace between countries.
One way the program fosters peace is by making it as easy on host families as possible. Foreign exchange students are fully insured, bring their own spending money, and are proficient in English. Families are only required to provide three meals a day and a bedroom that is private or shared with a host sibling of the same gender. Each family is supported by a professionally trained community representative who works with the family and student for the entire program.
“We welcome host families of all shapes and sizes – families with young children, families with no children, empty nesters whose children have left home, single parents and non-traditional families,” says Lawrence. “The key requirements for a host family are to provide a safe and nurturing home environment, genuinely love children, and have a desire to learn about other cultures.”
Lisa attested to the surprising ease of the commitment.
“People may think it will be like having company all the time, but it’s not like that — that would be exhausting,” said Lisa. “We just treat Karin like another child — she has chores just like everybody else. She’s not here for a vacation or to be on holiday. She’s seeing the bad and good of the whole culture, and if you treat foreign exchange students like family, everything falls into place.”
Ayusa is currently accepting application for families to host exchange students for the 2017-18 school year. Applicants can agree to host for five months in the fall or for the full ten-month academic year.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.