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Forming bonds with exchange students creates global ties

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: SARA FLORES - The Sayre family and exchange student Panny Nopmaneepaisan enjoyed Thanksgiving together last year, from left: back row: Mitchell, Eric, Rich; front row: Lisa, Nopmaneepaisan, Maddie, Eva.Lakeridge High School parent Rich Sayre said his family hosted a Thai exchange student through AFS Intercultural Programs USA after a series of coincidences.

The year before the Sayre’s family welcomed Thai student Panny Nopmaneepaisan into their home, he had heard that AFS needed a Lake Oswego host family — preferably one in Lakeridge territory. Nopmaneepaisan’s father had gone to Lakeridge on exchange in the early 1980s, and the aim was to keep the tradition alive.

The Sayre family had lived in Thailand for three years in the mid-1990s while he was stationed there for work. Both of Sayre’s daughters — one of whom is adopted and is Thai — were born in the country.

“So we felt a special connection to the Land of Smiles,” Sayre said. “It just all seemed like it was supposed to happen.”

The Sayres are the only family in Lake Oswego who participated in the AFS program last year, which brought to the Portland area, Tillamook and The Dalles 54 exchange students, said Shaun Sullens, team development specialist for the AFS Columbia Pacific Team.

The goal is to place about 54 students this year with at least four families in cities including Lake Oswego, Sullens said. Students will arrive in August and stay until June 2014. Participants come from a variety of countries such as Argentina, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Libya, Norway and Tajikistan.

Host families provide their guests with meals, a bed, a place to study and emotional support, Sullens said.

“The most important thing is to treat them as part of their family, as if they’re their own kids for a year, help (exchange students) immerse in the American culture and have the student share his or her culture with us,” she said. “So we here in the U.S. learn their traditions and beliefs and culture and the way they think.”

Nopmaneepaisan said she gained all of that and more. She said her family was wonderful, and she enjoyed spending time with them and at Lakeridge. Being able to participate in basketball and lacrosse teams was special for her because the school in her home country does not have team sports for girls. There also aren’t many electives in her school such as psychology and drama.

“I’ve grown a lot throughout the year — more confident, more responsible — and know myself better,” she said. “I’m so glad that I decided to come and never regret it. It was such a memorable year.”

There is no remuneration for host families, although they are entitled to a tax deduction, and providing the service makes families’ children eligible for a $200 AFS Family Award that can be applied toward AFS study abroad program tuition, Sullens said.

The program isn’t designed to reward families with dollars but with something intangible, cultural understanding, a key element to peaceful international relations, she said. AFS was founded in 1947, in the wake of World War II, to build relationships between the people of Germany and the United States. It expanded to Japan, and now more than 2,300 exchange students from 90 countries visit the United States through the program each year.

Lorie James said in her 20 years as the Lake Oswego AFS volunteer organizer, she’s found that hosting an exchange student helps a family grow.

“I think the value at the end of the year is they’ve learned more about their family and how it functions and more about its values,” James said.

Lisa Sayre said her family enjoyed the experience, especially her daughters, who attended Lakeridge with Nopmaneepaisan. Her sons enjoyed spending time with their overseas visitor, too, though they no longer live at home.

“My girls, I know they’re really excited that they’re going to have a friend in Thailand and to keep up with her and Skype with her,” Lisa Sayre said. “They’re planning to go visit Thailand and meet her family.”

Eva Sayre, an incoming Lakeridge sophomore, said it was awkward at first because she wasn’t sure what to talk about with Nopmaneepaisan. But, she came to love their time together and also learned a great deal about Thailand.

“I thought that having Panny as an exchange student was exactly like having another sister,” Eva Sayre said shortly before the exchange ended last month. “I could go into her room and get help on homework, or ask her to do my hair and even share clothes. When she arrived she was an exchange student, but when she leaves she will definitely be leaving as a member of the Sayre family.”

Nopmaneepaisan said she is glad to be a part of the Sayre family.

“I will definitely keep in touch with my family and friends,” she said.

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