Samuel Wakio had never left his home country of Kenya in East Africa, except to visit Tanzania. But through the ASSE International Student Exchange Program, he began his junior year at Huntsville High School last September. Wakio is now a Hornet, experiencing the culture of Texas while his host family learns about the food and customs from his home in Africa.
Wakio received a scholarship from the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program that sent him to ASSE because of his good grades and essays. Scholarship students like Wakio are required to perform at least 50 hours of community service within the school year, and he has already served 94 hours.
Wakio has volunteered at Fair on the Square, Isaiah 117 House and the Pumpkin Patch at First United Methodist Church. He’s helped distribute food to the less fortunate at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville and Bridge Ministries in Houston. Wakio has also helped package handmade products for Mercy House, which is an international program first created in Kenya to help widowed women and single mothers.
Wakio comes from the mid-sized city of Voi. He would normally be attending an all male boarding school with about 1600 students, and only see his family on holidays. In Kenya, students choose four compulsory classes and four electives from a list of 16 subjects. They pursue this course of study for four years rather than changing subjects annually. They take their major break in November and December with only a short hiatus in the summer.
The other major difference is that teachers change classes, allowing the students to stay in the same room with their peer group. At HHS, Wakio was given a guide when he arrived to help him navigate the school and find his classes. His favorite subject is robotics. There was a similar program at his Kenyan school, but he says it was much smaller than HHS, with only two students.
Wakio is really into science and has been taking AP Physics. His favorite teacher is Mrs. Schroeder. She is the U.S. History teacher at HHS and the contact point for all exchange students. In 2021 she created the Foreign Exchange and Friends Club, which has 20 students this year. Schroeder has hosted an exchange student in the past, and her son is studying abroad in Spain, so she understands the value of inclusion for students who are far from home.
In the club, Wakio has connected with students from Kenya and Ghana as well as those from several other countries. They had their own Friendsgiving and Christmas celebrations this year, which Wakio said was a great experience. For his host parents Helen and Alex Tcacenco, this is their fourth year hosting an exchange student. The first two were young men from Europe. The third was a young lady from Tanzania and a scholarship student like Wakio. Helen Tcacenco has been an educator for nine years and currently teaches math at Mance Park Middle school. Her husband Alex works in the mail room at the Huntsville Item.
They were first exposed to the idea through an email from Mance Park with a link to the ASSE website. Helen says the process was simple. They ask about the size of your town and what kinds of cultural opportunities are in the area. Once a background check is passed and the application is approved, hosts receive a list of students and choose based on their profiles.
“He is the sweetest kid, and it’s been great to experience Kenyan culture, “ said Helen. One way Wakio has shared his homeland with his host family is through food.
“Samuel has cooked a Kenyan dish for us with collards and beef in a tomato base. I don’t normally like collards, but I loved this dish,” said Tcacenco. The custom in Kenya is to eat with your hands, using a vehicle called ugali, which is similar to polenta and used in place of bread.
Another way Wakio has been sharing his culture is through presentations to a larger audience. He has given speeches about Kenya at HHS, Alpha Omega Academy, Gulf Coast Trades Center and University Heights Baptist Church, where he is part of the youth group.
In turn, the Tcacencos have given Wakio a number of ways to see and experience Texan culture. One of their first outings was to George Ranch Historical Park in Richmond. It’s a working ranch on 20k acres that features historic homes and costumed interpreters. Their trips to do community service have given him a great view of the landscape of East Texas and the surrounding area.
The best exchange has been family time. Wakio said his favorite part so far was Thanksgiving break, when they cooked and carved a turkey together, and spent much of their free time playing board games and watching movies on Netflix. The Tcacencos also introduced him to Star Wars. Wakio prefers the prequels to the originals, but they all agree that their favorite character is Luke Skywalker.
This experience has been really good for me,” said Wakio. “My host parents are the best of the best.”
For more information about hosting an exchange student, visit https://asse.com/.