Student exchange program looks to rebound locally after pandemic challenges

Ethan Kelley found himself unexpectedly boarding an international flight a little over a year ago in Frankfurt, Germany.

The arrival of the covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 prompted the Greensburg teen’s early departure from a student exchange program in Bavaria that was supposed to continue through the following June.

“I had to come back in the middle of March, right before the huge lockdown,” said Kelley, now 17 and a Greensburg Salem senior. “The Frankfurt airport was so busy; everybody was scrambling to get the last plane home to their countries.”

It was a disappointing end to his trip abroad, which was organized through the AFS and Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange programs.

But, Kelley said, “Everything I did and learned made even the small time I was there worth it. I think I did learn a lot about myself, and I gained new skills.”

Before he ventured to Europe, Kelley and his family hosted a student from Italy, also through AFS, in the 2018-19 school year. Host families are needed once more for prospective exchange students in several Westmoreland County school districts, as AFS looks to bounce back in the upcoming academic year.

Identifying willing host families is the first step in reviving local AFS activity, according to Darlene Frederickson, president of the organization’s Westmoreland County/Laurel Highlands Chapter. Then, corresponding school districts must agree to provide instruction for the foreign students.

A Hempfield resident and retired Greensburg Salem elementary teacher, Frederickson has placed close to 100 foreign students and hosted nearly 30 herself during five decades of volunteering with AFS. Her chapter typically arranges placements for up to 10 foreign students annually. However, none were placed in Westmoreland during the current school year and only two AFS students are staying in neighboring Allegheny County.

“It was a tremendous hit,” Frederickson said of the pandemic-prompted drop in student placements. Nationally, she said, AFS hopes to place at least 1,500 students for the coming year, down from the usual 2,500.

“I applaud those families and schools who took this on and made history hosting during a difficult time,” she said.

International arrivals

Julian Gloudemans, 18, of Amsterdam is staying with five-time host “mother” Sue Adams in Richland Township while attending Pine-Richland High School. He noted pandemic restrictions in Pennsylvania have been less severe than those in his native city, which imposed a 9 p.m. curfew.

Unfortunately, another AFS student, Rome native Beatrice Latina, contracted covid-19 about two months after moving in with her Brackenridge host family in September. Though she is now recovered, she was subjected to a 14-day quarantine and lost her sense of taste and smell for several months.

That experience isn’t deterring other foreign students from following in her footsteps at Highlands High School in Harrison. Three other students, hailing from Denmark, Germany and Italy, are slated to arrive for the fall semester.

Ethan Kelley had a built-in affinity for international cultural exchanges through his family’s friendship with Spanish native Gonzalo Cembrero-Gomez, whom Ethan and older brother Caleb, now 19, knew affectionately as “Uncle Gonzo” as they were growing up.

Cembrero-Gomez stayed with an earlier generation of the Kelley family as a foreign exchange student in America and became friends with Kelley’s father, David. Before family matters recently took him back to Spain, Cembrero-Gomez featured his native cuisine at his restaurant, Pallantia, located in Greensburg and then in Shadyside.

‘Exchange of cultures’

Enrolled in AP Spanish at Greensburg Salem, Ethan Kelley decided to get his feet wet in German, with online studies, before heading to Germany in August 2019. After an initial month in an intensive German language program in Hamburg, he settled in at a school in the smaller city of Hof, taking a 20-minute public bus ride from his host family’s home in the village of Zedtwitz.

He got to experience the Bavarian region’s Oktoberfest and Christmas markets. He also played soccer, took walks in the forest and watched German-language films and chatted with one of his host brothers. “That really helped my language progression,” he said.

While in Bavaria, he ate plenty of sausage and schnitzel, as well as fish, duck and blaukraut, which features red cabbage.

After his premature return to Greensburg, Kelley completed a six-week online course featuring presenters from around the world, “talking about different cultures and how to be more accepting and adaptable,” he said. As a result, he earned an AFS Global Competence Certificate.

Kelley is planning to attend Chatham University to pursue a career in international business and to continue his studies in German, a path that became more clear for him after his time abroad with AFS.

“I knew I wanted to do something internationally,” he said. “Being able to work with people across the world is valuable. I like to be able to see the exchange of cultures.”

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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