It’s not exactly like the popular teen movie “High School Musical” or the television show “Glee” — but it’s not too far off, either.
That’s what Gabby Thorres, a 17-year-old foreign exchange student at Southern Lee High School, said she tells her curious friends back in Brazil when they ask her what her school and social life is like in the United States. She’s one of four foreign exchange students enrolled at either Southern Lee or Lee County High School this year through the Face the World Foundation, a national nonprofit that just began operating in Sanford this year.
Thorres came to the area from Minas Gerais, Brazil; the other students are 16-year Kim Krause from Berlin; 15-year-old Franzie Hacking from Frankfurt, Germany; and 16-year-old Cassandra Chen from Taiwan.
“The first days were difficult because everybody was asking me where I’m from, just all the same questions,” Krause said. “But after a while, I settled in, made some friends.”
The girls and their hosts all appeared to have good relationships as well. Julie Miller, who is Hacking’s host mom and the local representative for the foundation, said the foundation makes it “really easy to match the needs and wants of the students with the needs and wants of the families.”
Everyone who wants to travel to America for the program must speak English and have both health insurance and enough spending money for their 10 or so months here, for example. They must also compile profiles of themselves. The volunteer host families then look through the profiles and submit their top choices based on everything from the students’ personalities and home countries to academic strength, interest in athletics and more.
“My husband and I have basically taken over the Sanford Squids (swim team), so we needed someone who swam,” Lucy Van Donsel, who is Krause’s host mom, said, adding: “My son, he has Asperger’s, but she gets right down and plays LEGOs with him. She doesn’t play video games [back home], but she tried to with him.”
Sports also helped Amber Kepford and her family pick Chen; she has a younger son who plays basketball, so they were looking for someone who also loved the sport. Chen does, although she said she has been surprised by just how athletic all her new classmates are compared to back in Taiwan.
Miller said she was drawn to Hacking, in part, because she’s a girl. Miller has two boys but is an empty-nester now.
“It’s kind of nice having another girl around the house,” she said with a laugh. “It’s much quieter, nothing’s getting broken.”
Patricia and Felicia Likes, Gabby’s host mom and host sister, said they’re both frequently on the go and so they wanted someone who was also extroverted and interested in many different activities.
“Her personality’s so in tune with the way our family works ... ,” Felicia Likes said.
Added Patricia Likes: “It’s really helped me feel better, having someone to drive around. ... It keeps me busy, and I feel needed again.”
As for school itself, the girls all said their classes haven’t been too different from what they’re used to back home. For Chen, especially, it’s almost like a vacation: “Really different,” she said of her academic experience so far. “In Taiwan, we go to school from 7 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.)”
The students have each discovered other differences as well — the lack of taxis and buses, the size of dishes and the large amount of pepper put on food were all things they weren’t expecting. But they said for the most part, they were well prepared for life in America and the new opportunities here.
Thorres, for example, is a cheerleader at Southern Lee. There are no cheerleaders in Brazil, but she had seen them in movies and wanted to do it herself. She said she has loved her experience and that the Cavaliers cheerleaders are some of her best friends.
But while the students said having certain conversations about things they had assumed were common knowledge can sometimes be frustrating, the mutual education of visiting students and locals is actually the driving idea behind the entire program.
“In return [for meals and a home], our students will share their culture, religion and how they live their lives back home, all for the chance to experience your home life, our high schools and the freedoms that Americans have compared to their countries,” a flier for the foundation states.
Miller said she’s already recruiting potential host families for next year; anyone who is interested or has more questions can contact her at (919) 770-2784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.