Exchange programs still fostering connections despite pandemic

Heather Nessler, executive director of communications, marketing and technology for Rochester Public Schools, said there are currently no foreign exchange programs in Rochester high schools.

However, a few other school districts in southeastern Minnesota have alternative exchange learning experiences available.

According to Principal Joel Leer, there are four exchange students attending Northfield High School. That’s half as many as usual, he added. Northfield High normally works with Rotary International, a global sponsor of exchange programs for high school students.

“[Northfield High School] normally receives between four and six exchange students,” Leer said. Though, due to the pandemic, most of the Rotary exchange program is temporarily suspended until June 2021.

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Melody Trimble, youth exchange officer with the Rotary Clubs of Rochester and lead of the Rotary Youth Exchange committee, said while virtual exchange programs are being explored, they’re not currently available at Rotary.

Several exchange students currently attending Northfield High School are from different certified programs. All of their housing and hosting agreements were made prior to the pandemic. Three of the four students were already in the U.S. during the spring semester.

Leer believes Northfield High School’s current virtual learning system hasn’t affected the exchange program much. Hosts — the families housing exchange students — are functioning just as parents are. The only obstacles are a few cultural and technological differences.

“Even in the spring, lots of exchange students left for home early,” Leer said. “[Northfield High School] didn’t have students for replacement in the fall.”

No students were stuck in the U.S. at the start of the pandemic, and everyone made it home safely, he said.

This is similar across the school districts for Cannon Falls and Rochester.

In March, students with the Rotary program were given the choice to fly home. That included one student from Japan in Rochester, and three Rochester students in Mexico and Germany.

“Having to end their exchange on short notice was difficult on all the students,” Trimble said. “Rotary offered guidance and support to both students and families on adjusting back to life at home.”

According to Darren Couillard, a counselor at Century High School in Rochester, there were a couple exchange students who returned to their home countries immediately in the spring. One student chose to stay in the U.S. for the rest of the spring semester with their host family.

Anne Mellesmoen, a former Spanish Teacher at Cannon Falls, said most exchange students studied at their host families’ homes until they could fly to their home countries.

“It was very tricky,” she said. “But it was best for the students to be back home.”

Most exchange students attending Cannon Falls Secondary School were in their home countries by April or May. During their time in the U.S, they continued with their online education through Cannon Falls.

Though, a large part of being an exchange student is interaction with other people, Mellesmoen said.

“[When the interaction] went away, it was a big disappointment,” she said. “But [the students] were encouraged to keep doing homework. It was harder to ask questions, but the majority did well.”

Cannon Falls Secondary School currently has no in-person exchange students. Some students signed up with exchange programs, but that has been deferred until next year.

AFS Intercultural Programs, an exchange organization both Cannon Falls and Rochester Public Schools work with, has made some changes to their programs during the pandemic.

According to Mellesmoen, AFS created an online exchange program called AFS Global You Adventurer. Marlene Baker, chief development, communications and alumni relations officer at AFS, said students are placed with virtual host families for a five-week virtual exchange course.

“Because our mission is to help build a more just and peaceful world, we were wondering how to get this mission out to people during [the pandemic],” Baker said.

AFS’ goals with this virtual program are to connect students with people around the world and to help make “global citizens,” she said.

In the Global You Adventurer Program, students are able to explore the U.S. election and Native American culture, take virtual tours of the Statue of Liberty and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and participate in lectures about implicit bias and contemporary art.

Students also do activities and interact with their virtual host families. Baker said students have had positive experiences, and that these host families are also able to learn from it.

Jill Warner, director of educational outreach at AFS, said she saw a video of students wishing their virtual host mother a happy birthday.

“[The students] are very much enjoying the experience,” she said. “Volunteers are engaging and enjoying it, too. They’re having a great time with interactions.”

Share your experience

We’d like to hear from exchange students and host families who have participated in an program (in-person or otherwise) during the pandemic. Write to us at [email protected] with the subject “Exchange programs.”

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