Sunday, Jun 25, 2017

An interesting exchange at HHS

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Harvard HIgh School’s 2013-2014 exchange students are “Kaew” Kornkaew Sangthong, “Torrey” Thorey Bjork Aradottir and Mukhiddin Muradzhanovich Abdulkhakimov. HML PHOTO BY RHONDA MIX

One might not expect Harvard to be a hub for intercultural tourism, but for three Harvard High School exchange students, the city has become their home away from home as they become immersed in American culture.

Mukhiddin Muradzhanovich Abdulkhakimov, 17, from Krgyzstan, Russia; “Torrey” Thorey Bjork Aradottir, 17, from Reykjavík, Iceland; and “Kaew” Kornkaew Sangthong, 17, from Bangkok, Thailand, came to Harvard as part of the high school’s partnership with AFS-USA – formerly the American Field Service. The students have been placed at HHS for one year.

AFS is a nonprofit organization and leader in intercultural learning, offering international exchange programs in more than 40 countries around the world.

Jim Bosworth, who has been the exchange student program coordinator at HHS for 12 years, credits parents with much of the program’s success at HHS. He also said he believes the program is important for all young people involved.

“[The exchange program] shows students differences in culture and brings the whole world into the school,” he said. Bosworth runs an activities group that helps new students integrate and participate in activities such as field trips and events such as intercultural parties.

The Harvard Main Line recently sat down with all three exchange students to interview them about their experiences since they’ve arrived and leaving life as they knew it behind.

All three students said they wanted to participate in the program because they had been interested in learning more about the United States. For Abdulkhakimov, the opportunity was extra special. He said Krgyzstan didn’t gain independence until 1991, and the chance to not only learn English but also to become a foreign exchange student was a rare occurrence.

“It is really hard to become an exchange student in Kyrgyzstan,” Abdulkhakimov said. “I wanted the opportunity to develop my English, to know more about what it would be like to have American parents, to know more about American high school and to have American friends.”

Aradottir and Santhong said they had a bit of trouble convincing their mothers in Iceland and Thailand to let them participate in the program, but said their mothers gave in and are now proud of them.

“I love my family here,” Aradottir said. She fondly called her mother back home a “helicopter parent” and then talked about how much she also loves her family in Harvard.

Santhong expressed similar feelings.

“My mother is proud of me but was reluctant to let me go,” she said. “My family here, they are so nice to me. I’m blessed to have met them.”

Abdulkhakimov said his family back home and his family in Harvard share similarities, and he has enjoyed visiting new places with his host family.

When asked what their initial impressions of the United States were, the students were happy to share their thoughts. “I was so excited,” Abdulkhakimov said. “I had so many different feelings. Seeing the skyscrapers and listening to the different languages I couldn’t understand.”

“I thought, ‘this is too hot,’” Aradottir said, adding that this winter, Iceland is, in fact, now warmer than Chicago. “I thought people were so nice and open with strangers,” Sangthong said.

Though the students did not get to pick where they would ultimately be placed, they have embraced HHS and Harvard with open arms and have adjusted well.

“I love the school. I love the people. I used to have to take buses everywhere, but now I get to walk,” said Aradottir. Aradottir and Santhong said choosing their class schedules is not an option in their respective countries of Iceland and Thailand. They have enjoyed having this freedom at HHS.

Student life at HHS also has been exciting for Abdulkhakimov, who said studying in the United States is easier than studying in Kyrgyzstan, where school rules are strict and don’t allow for much freedom in the way of extracurricular activities.

“It’s always exciting here,” he said, noting the fact that students could so easily get involved in sports at HHS, whereas, in his own country, sports activities were not seen as important.

All three students said they are looking forward to prom and have been treated well by other students.

At the end of the interview, they shared what fresh perspectives they hope to gain through the experience, as well as what ideas they would like to leave behind with their peers in Harvard.

“So far this experience has made me more confident and outgoing,” said Aradottir. “I think that’s going to help me a lot when I go back [to Iceland].”

Aradottir said she hopes people realize Iceland is not as cold as they might think, and that learning about new cultures is important.

“If people try to understand one another, it might be a bit more peaceful world,” she said.

Santhong said one reason she participated in the program was to gain independence.

“I wanted to learn to do things by myself,” she said. “And I want people to know that I do not ride elephants to school,” she added, laughing.

She also shared her thoughts on why she believes learning about new cultures and participating in an exchange program is important.

“People should know that they are not alone in this world. You can’t shut yourself off [from the rest of the world],” she said.

Abdulkhakimov shared similar sentiments.

“Since I came [to Harvard], I’ve changed a lot. I’m more outgoing,” he said. “The opportunity to be an exchange student is a very super experience for people. I would suggest it for all teenagers. Every person lives just once in life,” he continued. “We need to see a lot of stuff in life, otherwise it would be boring. To see new cultures and compare them with yours. To learn and share with others and be happy.”

For information on the exchange student program, visit afsusa.org.