Build a bridge: Local foreign exchange host families needed

Published 12:03 am Saturday, March 4, 2023

SALISBURY — Academic Year in America, a foreign-exchange program, is seeking host families in Rowan County.

One local host family indicated that it had enriched their lives beyond what they could have imagined when they signed up. Meanwhile, their exchange student, who is from Germany, discovered that she loved grilled cheese and the Friday night lights of a high school football game.

Nele Wessendorf is 16. She’s from Hamburg, Germany, but for the last half-year, she’s been living with her host family, the Mortons, in Albemarle. She prepared for things to be different in America, but that has proven to be the source of much of her joy.

“The food is really different,” Wessendorf said. “American people go out to eat way more.”

It’s not just the cuisine.

“The school system is really different, and the school spirit awesome,” Wessendorf said. “I think it is really cool. At the beginning, you don’t know what to expect. You live with people you have never met before. But there is also a lot of excitement that comes with it.”

Wessendorf knew that American football, especially high school Friday nights, was a big deal, but the fervor of school spirit still took her by surprise.

“It was great with all the students on the bleachers and singing the national anthem,” Wessendorf said.

Unfortunately, her new school, South Stanly High, could not capture a victory that night, but Wessendorf was hooked all the same. She’s playing sports now, too, and for the school, something that her host mom, Kristy Morton, indicated is just not something they do in Germany.

“If they want to play soccer or baseball, they have to play outside of school on their own,” Morton said.

The concept of foreign exchange is common to students overseas, who consider it a real possibility in contrast to many American students.

“In a foreign country, exchange studies is something they learn about at an early age,” Morton said. “It is a tradition that they look forward to doing, and their family usually saves up for.”

To be selected, students must make a video and a profile. Morton likened it to an interview.

“It’s a lot of work to be a host parent, but it is very rewarding and not only for the experience,” Morton said. “I have a 10-year-old child, Christopher, who has learned a lot from Nele. It’s good for kids to see and learn.”

Morton indicated that putting a price on the cultural exchange that takes place would be an impossible task.

“In our small town, a lot of these kids may not get to go far away,” Morton said. “Nele has taught the high school a lot.”

The experience has brought Wessendorf and her South Stanly classmates out of their shells.

“It’s hard for a child to come to a place where everyone has grown up together,” Morton said. “She has overcome a lot of obstacles by branching out.”

Now Wessendorf is running cross country and playing for the soccer team.

Making a difference in an international student’s life and your own is as simple as signing up.

Ginger Jeffcoat is the Academic Year in America senior program coordinator for the North and South Carolina region. She lives in Salisbury and has been involved in the organization for 26 years.