OAKLAND — In the first year of the ASSE International Exchange Program in Garrett County, four students from four different countries are currently living with local families.
During the Christmas season, they took the time to speak about their experiences.
Jerry and Cindy Maust live in Accident. They have five children — three sons and two daughters. All three sons are married and out of the house and they have four grandchildren. Twin daughters Lydia and Lindsay are 16 years old.
“When I saw the post on Facebook about hosting exchange students, both Lydia and Lindsay were really excited about the possibility of having a student from another country come live with us for the school year,” Cindy Maust said. “When I asked Jerry about it, he saw how excited our girls were about the idea and he agreed pretty quickly.”
Cindy Maust noted that the process was completed promptly, and they gained approval as a family and selected Hanna, who is from Indonesia.
Ami joined the family from Japan later in the school year.
“I think when Ami came to our family, it helped all of us become closer,” Cindy Maust said. “I think Hanna enjoyed showing Ami around at home and school, getting to be a big sister, and all four of our girls like to laugh and watch shows together, as well as just hang out together.”
The Maust family has enjoyed the opportunity to learn about Indonesian and Japanese culture.
“We have had the best time explaining how things work in our own cultures and realizing how different things can be, but how similar we are as well,” Cindy Maust said. “Kindness and respect, mixed with a dose of laughter, is universal.”
“Everything is going well so far,” Hanna said. “Before I arrived in the U.S., I’ve heard so many former exchange students (say) that study abroad is a life-changing and roller-coaster experience. Those statements are very true. I’ve experienced half of the roller coasters experience here in the U.S.”
Hanna was happy to enjoy an American vacation at the beach in North Carolina and is glad that she was placed at Northern Garrett High School.
“My teachers are amazing!” she said. “My host family is very awesome. I feel connected with them, especially my host mother — she treats me like her own child. My host mother always tells her children, ‘I love you.’ I’ve never said those three words to my biological mother my entire life! Not because I don’t love her, but because that’s just not the way we show affection to each other.”
Hanna explained that Christmas traditions in Indonesia are different than in America.
“(From) December 25-27, we open our house to whoever wants to come. It can be our friends, family, relatives, neighbors that we’re not really close to, even strangers!” she said.
She explained that in her city, Jayapura, this tradition is called “peta.” Pe for “pegang” and ta for “tangan.”
“It means hand-shaking,” Hanna said. “A bunch of young kids will go from house to house to get some sodas and cookies with their backpacks, or even sometimes they bring extra plastic bags to put the drinks and foods they’ve got. At my home in Indonesia, my mother usually cooks rendang (beef) and opor (chicken). And we barely give Christmas presents to each other in Indonesia.”
“It has been three months since I arrived in the United States,” Ami said. “At first, I was homesick and not everything was easy, but I am very happy and proud that I have had a wonderful experience with many wonderful people who have helped me a lot. There are so many people who have been so kind to me during this study abroad program that I really can’t thank them enough.”
Ami said she wants to become a teacher. Her father and mother worked as volunteers in developing countries, and she would like to volunteer to teach English in developing countries like them.
“I would like to repay the kindness of the many people who helped me during my study abroad experience, and I would like to help others in the future,” she said.
Ami stated that she loves Christmas.
“In Japan, I always make and eat Christmas cake with my family,” she said. “I was very surprised to hear that in the U.S., many houses decorate for Christmas and bake cookies. I am looking forward to seeing many lights on Christmas Day.”
Hershfeldt family of Oakland
The Hershfeldt family moved to Oakland in the summer of 2021 from Stuttgart, Germany.
“We moved to Garrett County because I took a job at Northern High School as the JROTC Senior Army Instructor,” Steve Hershfeldt said. “Our family is originally from Utah, but we have lived all over the world the last 18 years as a military family. In all, we spent almost 12 years overseas living in Germany (six years), South Korea (two years) and Japan (3-1/2 years).”
Hershfeldt said that although he works at Northern High, all of their kids live in Oakland and attend Broad Ford Elementary and Southern High. Just before school let out last summer, the family decided to host a foreign exchange student for the 2022-23 school year.
“The process to become a host family is fairly easy, but it does take some time, requiring interviews and home visits before being permitted to host a student,” Hershfeldt said. “Once approved, we handpicked our German exchange student, Julie. Julie comes from a very beautiful part of Germany and is also familiar with the area of Germany where we lived, as her grandparents lived only a few villages over.”
A few weeks before Julie’s arrival in August, the program coordinator contacted the family and asked if they would be willing to be a temporary host family for a second student who had not been placed at that point.
“Although we knew it would be a little more challenging, we accepted because we didn’t want someone to miss out on the opportunity they dreamed of,” Hershfeldt said.
In a very short time, they were notified that Aruzhan would be joining them from Kazakhstan.”
“While the assignment for Aruzhan was only supposed to be temporary, we knew very quickly that we would have to keep her because both her and Julie became instant sisters to our three daughters, Ella, Willow and Paisley,” Hershfeldt said. “My wife, Melanie Hershfeldt, made it clear after just a few days that Aruzhan was one of us.”
The family stated that hosting the students has been a great learning experience so far.
“Both girls bring a unique set of experiences and perspectives that add so much to our daily lives,” Hershfeldt said. “As we move into the holiday season, we are excited to share our Christmas traditions with them, especially Aruzhan, as this will be her first time observing Christmas as a holiday.”
“My visit so far is going great,” Julie said. “I have already visited a lot of places, went to Ohio, Delaware, and I am planning on going to New York and D.C. in January. But there are also a lot of nice places I’ve visited in Garrett County. For example, Swallow Falls and Grantsville. I am really happy here even though I couldn’t choose where to go.”
She admitted that the first few weeks were pretty overwhelming since things were different than she thought they would be.
“Germany is a really small country where everything compared to here is tiny,” Julie said. “But I got used to living in Oakland really fast and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else now.”
She stated that Christmas in Germany is similar to the way it is celebrated in America.
“On Christmas Eve, we usually take walks and decorate the tree in the afternoon,” Julie said. “Then everyone helps in the kitchen to prepare dinner.”
She stated that the typical German Christmas food is potato salad because money was tight for many families in the past and was saved for the feast on Christmas Day.
“After dinner, my siblings and I always have to play a Christmas carol on our instruments — the cello, violin, trumpet and a clarinet,” Julie said. “That always sounds terrible because none of us is really good at playing, but after that we can finally unwrap our presents. The next day, the Christmas Day, we just have a big breakfast and hang out for the rest of the day.”
Aruzhan, from Kazakhastan
Aruzhan explained that Kazakhstan is a country located in Central Asia, next to Russia and China. She found the adjustment to life in America to be difficult at first.
“It was really hard in the beginning,” she said. “It took me a long time to get used to people, food and the country in general. Also, being apart from the family when you’re only 15 is a little tough.”
She expressed her thanks to her host family and the people around her because with their help, she’s gradually getting used to life in Garrett County.
“I’ve been here only three months and I already love this place,” Aruzhan said. “Meeting new people from all over the world, talking with them in different languages and visiting new places makes me feel really happy.”
She noted that she wants to learn more about American history, culture and lifestyle.
“I want to discover a new world, expand my horizons and develop as a person,” Aruzhan said.
She hopes that at the end of the school year, she will be able to share good memories with people from her country.
“I don’t celebrate Christmas in Kazakhstan, but our New Year celebration is kinda similar,” Aruzhan said. “We decorate our tree on 31 of December and put gifts from Santa Claus under the Christmas tree.
“After that, we go to my grandparents’ house. We come home at 6 p.m. and prepare for the family dinner. Then we celebrate New Year at 12 p.m. by singing songs, dancing, opening presents, playing some games and just hanging out till 5 in the morning. This is how we celebrate it in Kazakhstan. Now I’m excited for my first Christmas here.”