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Exchange programs mean the world to students, host families

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Nancy, left, and Tanner Kearney play Uno in their home on May 31.

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By Brian Wudkwych
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, June 9, 2018

When the school year officially ends, some students will dart out the door to celebrate the start of summer while others will turn their tassels and look towards the next step in life.

A small handful, though, will board planes and head back to their home countries having completed a year of studying abroad as part of a foreign exchange program.

That’s the reality for Nancy Li, who soon will fly back to China after having spent the year studying at The Oakwood School. Her visit was part of the school’s partnership with an exchange agency called New Oasis International Education.

Li, a 10th grader, is one of 10 foreign exchange students at Oakwood, eight of whom arrived through New Oasis.

Greenville locals Greg and Michelle Kearney long have wanted to host a foreign exchange student but kept putting it off because they wanted to focus on their son, Tanner, who is in first grade.

However, the original family that Li was supposed to live with fell through, and Oakwood was desperate to find a replacement family to help out. The Kearneys decided there was no better time than the present to accept a student and they made space for Li. 

Now, the Kearney house looks more like the cultural blend that exchange programs aim to instill. The family finds itself eating with chopsticks more often now that Li has taught them how. In return, they have taught their guest common board games and, of course, introduced her to regional barbecue — an obvious staple of eastern North Carolina culture.

Li even got to travel to Florida with the family to go to Disney World, Universal Studios and more.

“I love to travel to different places,” Li said. “I also like to experience different cultures. I’ve had barbecue, fried chicken and pizza. It’s great.”

The Kearneys’ experience is not all that different from that of fellow host family the Murphys.

Brian and Julie Murphy hosted Gabi Sernandes — a junior from Brazil who studied at South Central this past year — through an exchange program called Nacel Open Door, which hosts students for five- or 10-month stints. For them, there were challenges in helping Sernandes, who arrived in August, make friends thanks to language and cultural barriers. But she did not need to look far to find a connection and it is one that Julie said will be lifelong.

“We wanted our whole family to see what it is like for someone from another culture to come into our home,” Brian said. “We have two boys who have a sister now. It was eye-opening for them.”

Sernandes has been in the United States twice before but neither time was for academic reasons. As far as classwork went, she said her things went well due to to a smaller course load. 

“It’s easier here,” she said. “We take a lot classes at the same time in Brazil. Sometimes we’ll have 16 classes in a semester whereas here we’ll have four. I like it better here.”

Though Pitt County Schools does not have an exchange program, Sernandes was one of six exchange students to find host families east of Raleigh through Nacel. Nancy Campbell, a regional representative for Nacel, said the program is actively seeking host families for next year to bring even more youth to the area.

Only six total students are in Campbell’s coverage zone with Sernandes being the only one in Pitt County. Next year, she would like to see that number increase to at least 15.

“It’s a chance to educate the students,” Campbell said. “It’s a chance to teach them about the American culture and what America is all about. Another goal is to, of course, help us learn about other countries. In today’s time it’s really important to get to know our neighbors. These students bring that with them, part of their culture, here.”

Host families working with Nancel are not responsible for paying for anything other than feeding students three meals a day and providing room and board. Students come with their own money and their own health insurance.

Li and the Kearneys enjoyed their experience so much that they plan to make the exchange an annual one until Li’s graduation from Oakwood. She plans to come back every year to stay with the Kearneys and then wants to look into possibly going to college in the United States. 

“She’s already like our daughter,” Michelle said of Li. “We can’t rave enough about how wonderful she is. She just fit right in and it’s been an incredible experience for all of us.”

And for the Murphys, hosting Sernandes was so great that they, too, plan to host again. They will welcome another student in August.

“It has been one of the most eye-opening and rewarding experiences that we’ve ever been through,” Julie Murphy said. 

Contact Brian Wudkwych at bwudkwych@reflector.com or 252-329-9567 and follow @brianwudkwych on Twitter.

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