Sometimes understanding another culture or another country takes more than just opening up a textbook or looking on the Internet. Sometimes it takes a personal relationship.
This year, students and residents of Ennis will have the opportunity to learn more about a country that’s played an integral part of America’s foreign relations for the last decade. Three exchange students from Pakistan are planning on making Ennis home for 10 months beginning in August.
The three students, all 16 years old, are coming to Ennis through a program with the U.S. State Department and the not for profit group Center for Cultural Interchange, which is based in Chicago.
However, two of the students still need host families, said David Kelley, an Ennis resident who has helped organize the students’ placement in Ennis.
Kelley, who has been involved with foreign student exchange programs since the 1980s, is anxious to bring three students from Pakistan to Ennis.
“It’s the educational experience of a lifetime,” Kelley said.
Government sponsored student exchange programs got started in the mid-1980s as the Cold War ended, said Megan Bhatia, placement director with the Center for Cultural Interchange.
Essentially, the idea was to help relations between countries by facilitating opportunities for youth from each country to visit, live and learn about other cultures, Bhatia said. The goal was to create a “grassroots, public diplomacy.”
“I see students grow, I see families grow and I see communities grow when they get to experience people from another culture,” she said.
The program Kelley helped start was called PH International and is based in Vermont. Their focus initially was eastern European countries as the world began to emerge from the decades long Cold War.
It was Kelley’s friendship with Zahid Munir, a Pakistani man who came to Ennis with help from Dr. David and Elizabeth Mann, that got him thinking about trying to get other students from Pakistan to come to Ennis.
Relationships with countries in the Middle East in general and Pakistan in particular are crucial now and will be into the future, he said. Yet from a national standpoint, Pakistan and the U.S. have had a tough relationship in the recent past.
“We need to understand each other better and we need to communicate better,” Kelley said.
What better way to start that process than to have future Pakistani leaders sharing time with American families and communities?
“I just think student exchange programs are some of the best ways for countries to have difficult conversations,” he said. “It’s like throwing a pebble in the pond, it has a ripple effect through communities. There’s so much that can be done when just people meet people.”
Many of the students brought over to America are supported by scholarships from the U.S. State Department, Kelley said. The scholarships are through a program called Future Leaders Exchange Program, or FLEX.
In the 1980s these scholarships were focused on eastern European countries, but after 9/11, the state department began offering scholarships to Middle Eastern and central Asian countries, Bhatia said.
Two of the three students coming to Ennis still need host families, she said. One boy, Muhammad, will be staying with Kelley and his wife Kelly Robinson.
Kelley and CCI are still looking to place a girl, Duria, and a second boy, Osama.
All three students are coming to America after winning FLEX scholarships, which in Pakistan are highly competitive, Bhatia said.
The students will live with a host family and attend school in Ennis. Also as part of their scholarship, the students will be required to do a certain amount of volunteer work during their stay, she said.
The great thing about the FLEX scholarships is they award students based on merit, not on money, Kelley said. The three students from Pakistan are coming not because they can afford the experience, but because they’ve worked hard, excelled in school and earned the scholarship.
“These are kids who have leadership potential,” he said.
Potential host families will fill out an application with CCI and include a series of photographs of their home, Bhatia said. Each family member over 18 will also undergo a background check. This will be followed by an in-home interview and reference check.
“We thoroughly vet our host families,” she said.
Once the student is placed, the idea is for them to become part of the family. Typical scholarship students, like the three coming to Ennis, have at least a basic proficiency in the English language, Bhatia said.
Throughout the school year the local CCI coordinator will stay in contact with the student and the host family to make sure everything is going well, she said.
And though it’s a big decision to bring an exchange student into your home, it’s one that is very rewarding, Bhatia said.
She speaks from quite a bit of experience as her family hosted exchange students when she was a child and then when she got older, Bhatia traveled as an exchange student to Belgium.
“I believe it in from personal experience,” she said.
Her experiences with people from other countries really opened her eyes to people and cultures from around the world and it allowed her to develop close friendships that continue today.
“It changed my perceptions of the world and changed my perceptions of myself,” Bhatia said.
If you are interested in hosting Duria or Osama, call Kelley 682 3059 or CCI field coordinator Calvin Clousing at 595-0715.