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American life resonates with exchange students

Rebecca Heine right from Germany and Elizabeth Pekarkova left from the Czech Republic, attend Federal Way High School. Both of them live with the same host family as well, and have grown to be like sisters, after going through the same American cultural experience together. - Aileen Charleston/The Mirror
Rebecca Heine right from Germany and Elizabeth Pekarkova left from the Czech Republic, attend Federal Way High School. Both of them live with the same host family as well, and have grown to be like sisters, after going through the same American cultural experience together.
— image credit: Aileen Charleston/The Mirror

By AILEEN CHARLESTON, The Mirror

Every year, young students from around the world leave behind the countries that saw them grow — with the sole purpose of experiencing the American way of life.

Anna Brzoska, Elizabeth Pekarkova, Juliana Caicedo and Rebecca Heine are four of the 13 exchange students living in Federal Way.

Anna is from a small town called Pu?awy, located in eastern Poland. Rebecca comes from Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city. Juliana is from Bogota, the capital of Colombia, and Elizabeth is from Czech Republic’s border town of Bohumín.

Although they come from different countries and each speak a different language, the things these four girls have in common is their spirit of adventure, their unconditional love for Starbucks, a charming accent, an addiction to American TV, and their dislike for the city’s public transportation.

Each of them left their countries five months ago.

Elizabeth had always been curious about the United States she got to know through movies and television. “I always wanted to come here,” she said.

Rebecca and Elizabeth are part of the same host family and both attend Federal Way High School. The American high school experience has been exactly as Elizabeth and Rebecca imagined it.

“It’s exactly like the movies,” Rebecca said. “In the cafeteria, there’s the punk table, the popular table, the smart table. I think we sit in the normal table,” she said, laughing. “I really like school spirit here.”

Most exchange students who attend American high schools like all the extracurricular activities and the students’ loyalty toward the schools they attend.

“School here is more about fun. In Poland, schools are all about studying,” said Anna, who is currently a junior at Decatur High School.

Most high school students in Europe are required to take between 14 and 16 classes per semester. Students have to prepare for a very demanding exam at the end of each school year until graduation.

“Nobody here tells your grades out loud, but homework here is so much,” Elizabeth said.

“I love online grades,” Rebecca said. “In Germany you won’t know your grade until the very end of the semester.”

Curious souls:

Coming from far away always arouses some type of curiosity from the peers that attend high school with exchange students. All four girls said being asked all sorts of questions is a lot of fun, but it can also be disappointing at times.

“Back home we already knew a lot about the United States before coming, but here a lot of people don’t know anything about our countries,” said Juliana, a senior at Todd Beamer High School. “People always ask me where I’m from and I say, ‘Colombia,’ then they say, ‘Oh cool,’ but when I ask them, ‘Do you know where it is?’ They usually say, ‘No,’” she added.

“People have asked me if I take cold water showers and if we own cell phones in Poland,” Anna said, laughing.

Elizabeth, said even some teachers don’t know that the Czech Republic stopped being Czechoslovakia 15 years ago and still refer to her country using that name.

“At school they’re always talking about how America is the best,” Elizabeth said.

“It’s good to be proud of your country, but sometimes it’s too much for me,” Rebecca added.

Despite some of the girls’ difficulties in adaptation and dominating the English language, their experience in Federal Way has been nothing less than enriching.

All of them are involved in different sports and try to take advantage of the many activities that their schools offer. Their exchange coordinators organize events every month that include skiing, camping trips, movie nights and barbecues, among others.

Elizabeth and Rebecca’s organization, Council on International Educational Exchange, makes their students organize a series of fundraisers throughout the year to pay for Mariners games and for an end-of-the-year trip to Disney World.

American family life:

Nonetheless, the most enriching experience these girls are living is being part of an American host family. People who open their houses to exchange students do it on a voluntary basis.

After the academic year is over, however, most families discover they also have built a bond.

Juliana said that the hardest part about going back to Colombia in June will be leaving her host sister, Andrea, behind.

“They’re real good friends and Juliana is part of our family,” host mother Jean Schneider said. “I’ve learned that Colombia is a much safer place than most Americans think.”

Susan Coles, Anna’s host mother, is a single woman who wanted to have an exchange student ever since she was in high school. For Susan, being Anna’s host mother has been a new experience, since she had to learn to share her space with someone else and, at the same time, learn how to coexist with a teenager.

Having an exchange student gives you a good perspective of how everyday people in other parts of the world view us. The scenario also teaches Americans more about their culture, Coles said.

“We are big family in this world and it’s hard to remember that sometimes,” she said.

Jeanne Coke, who is currently hosting both Rebecca and Elizabeth, has already served as a host family for two other girls in the past. She was about to suffer from the empty nest syndrome after her daughter left for college. She was placed with two foreign exchange students who now refer to her as their American mom.

“The girls are part of my family now, and they’re stuck with me for a lifetime,” Coke said. “They’ll actually listen to you, more than your own kids.”

Her admiration for these kids and their parents is inspired by the fact that they were brave enough to step out of their comfort zone and leave everything they knew behind. “They will more than likely be the movers and shakers of their countries one day,” Coke said.

And although the girls’ biggest complaints target the inconvenience of public transportation and not being able to walk everywhere as they do in their countries, they are constantly surprised by the friendliness of people.

“When I go to the store, people are so nice to me,” Anna said. “Parents do a lot of things with their children and for me it has hard to understand at the beginning why everybody was so affectionate with one another,” she said.

Throughout their stay these girls not only have adopted a new lifestyle but claim to also have gained more than 15 pounds since they arrived, thanks to their acquired taste of certain American fast foods.

When returning to their native countries, these students will bring a part of Federal Way’s essence — which from now on will travel with them wherever they go.

Contact Aileen Charleston: acharleston@fedwaymirror.com

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