Foreign exchange: Leandro C. adapts to new culture and education system

English teacher Ayn Nys was at a dinner when she spoke the word “Kerr,” and immediately, her friend Linda B. turned around.

Linda was looking for a niche for junior Leandro C., a foreign exchange student from Brazil who came through AFS Intercultural Programs. Leandro was originally selected to go to Taylor, but Linda was determined to get him into a different school.

“Our previous exchange students attended Elsik and Hastings, with mixed results,” Linda said. “I had known about Kerr in past years, but I never had success in getting a ‘foot in the door’ for our student to attend Kerr. When I realized that my friend teaches at Kerr, I decided to go for it.

“I contacted [Principal Greg] Freeman personally to ask if he was interested in having an exchange student on board at Kerr. He was very open to the idea and wanted to meet Leandro for an interview. Leandro and Mr. Freeman, along with [husband] Jeff and I, decided that Kerr was the right place.”

Linda and her husband, who have hosted three students before Leandro, were inspired to be host parents because they had early ties with foreign exchange.

“I remember being a member of AFS Club in high school — many years ago! — when we had exchange students in my school,” Linda said. “I was so impressed by these kids who would travel across the world alone! And, Jeff was an exchange student himself in college. I guess it seemed natural for us to want to ‘give back’ and provide this experience for other students.”

Leandro was equally enthusiastic to come to America.

“I always wanted to do foreign exchange,” Leandro said. “It was my biggest dream. I applied for a scholarship called The Global Citizens of Tomorrow by AFS.”

However, the application process was tedious.

“You have to have good grades in school, and then you do tests and some interviews,” Leandro said. “It was available just for America in two places: Chicago or Houston. I got chosen for Houston. For the host family, you apply for AFS, pick one student, see their profile, and see if that student fits in your home.”

Finally, Leandro was chosen as one of the ten students to get the Brazil scholarship.

“When I was leaving, I was really excited,” Leandro said. “At the first moment, I thought I’d be a cowboy and I’d live on a farm [in Texas]—then I went on Google.”

The change was a bit difficult for Leandro at first, but he is getting used to the Kerr atmosphere.

“It’s very different,” he said. “I’m getting used to different things, but everything is very adaptable. I’m adjusting.”

Leandro’s also adjusting well to American culture, according to Linda.

“He feels like part of the family!” she said. “He’s become best friends with our cat, does regular chores around the house, and I think he’s figured out the system at Kerr and feels comfortable now. He’s starting to socialize more with the American students.

“Leandro comes from a strong group of friends and family at home in Brazil – so it’s an adjustment being away from them. But Leandro has high goals and dreamed of the exchange program for a long time. He’s determined to succeed. I know he will form strong friendships at Kerr and in Houston. Sometimes he’s unsure of his English skills, but he doesn’t give himself enough credit – he’s doing great at communicating.”

To make Leandro feel welcome at Kerr, Nys agreed to help, and  read The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley to learn more about foreign exchange.

“[The author] compared education systems to see what worked—why are some countries faring so much better than others?” Nys said “…It showed me what kids in foreign exchange programs do.”

Over the summer, Nys sent out a Facebook message to 10 juniors and 10  seniors to be a part of Leandro’s welcoming committee.

“Just to let people know that he’s there,” Nys said. “I promised his host family that once people know who he is, they’ll be very excited and welcome him.”

Nys believes that Leandro is settling in nicely at Kerr because of its small size and academic freedom—something that is comparable to schools across the globe.

“The Kerr philosophy is more common than the United States’ philosophy,” Nys said. “In the book, the [author] says that students who are not watched over as much do better—so much of what Kerr is will make it a successful school in other countries.”

Linda hopes that Leandro’s story will inspire people to participate in foreign exchange.

“I want everyone to know how hard these kids work just to become a part of the exchange program,” she said. “Most of the kids have good English skills when they arrive, but nothing can prepare them for being totally immersed in English everywhere they look and listen…

“This world is so big, with so many different opinions about the USA. It’s amazing to listen and learn about a student’s perspective, and at the same time realize how much we also have in common.”