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Student Exchange Program 'Beginning of a Lifelong Relationship'

Two teens, from Thailand and Germany, currently hosted by local families through the AFS student exchange program.

American food has no taste?

Anyone who worships at the altar of apple pie need not get all in a lather. It's simply the honest impression one may get when they are from a country known for its highly-spiced fare, a place that offers only two seasons: hot and wet, hot and dry.

And, it was the impression of 17-year-old Penpitcha Pimonekaksorn when she came to Morristown in August, as part of the American Field Service (AFS) exchange program

Penpitcha, known by her nickname "Dream," is one of two students living in the Morristown area until June through the program, which began during the first World War as a volunteer ambulance corps. More than 60 countries participate today in the AFS program, sending students between 15 and 18 years old around the world. This year, 31 students are being hosted throughout New Jersey.

While American food may not have the same punch as Thai, Dream's experience thus far has brought to her a love of an American favorite: the hot dog. Also, snow, which she experienced for the very first time.

And, "I eat sugar and ice cream all the time," Dream said while preparing a homemade Thai dinner for the Strambi family, who have hosted German 16-year-old Nina Betz since August. "I already forgot how hot it is in Thailand."

Nina--who, like Dream is attending Morristown High School during her stay--has also given her host family and Dream's, Kathy and Gordon Pitt, a taste of German cooking, preparing Spaetzle and Mamelkuchen, a popular German dessert. While German food is not recognized for its spice, Nina has learned other things during her time in the United States.

"At first, I didn't think it would be so different. It actually is," she said, noting pleasantries such as often asking someone how they are doing is something that's just not done in Germany.

Also, the word "like," which Nina said people say all the time here. "I have started to think in English. Sometimes, I dream in English," she said.

Nina's acclimation into the Strambi household happened quickly. Two days after her arrival, the family headed to their cabin on Indian Lake, in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.

Nina was part of the family, sharing personal space with seventh-grader Elizabeth, ninth-grader Stevie and 11th-grader Matt. "She came and, right away, she is pushing us off the deck into the water," said mother Debbie Strambi.

"So many kids are a benefit. There's always someone here, there's always support,"  she said.

Upstate New York is far from the only place outside Morris County the pair have gotten to experience. Among their journeys, Dream and Nina have visited Washington D.C., New York City, a Christmas Tree farm in Sussex County and the Jersey Shore.

While Nina is the first student the Strambis have hosted, the Pitts are on student No. 3. They have previously hosted students every other year, from Thailand and China.

"Our oldest son wanted to do an exchange program and went to Argentina for six months," Kathy Pitt said. "We thought, when someone is gracious enough to open their home for our son, we should reciprocate."

Despite her initial impression of American food, Pitt said, "Dream is probably the most polite and gracious. She is unbelievably helpful, I have to get her to stop.

"She is incredibly easy to have as a hosted student," she said of Dream, who has aspirations of studying biology in college. "She is very dedicated to her school work, extra curricular activities and she always wants to cook. She is just a dream, literally, to have around."

It has been an amazing transformation for both teens, said Morris Township resident Lisa Iervolino, whose family hosted over a dozen exchange students through AFS since 1998. While she and husband Tom have stopped hosting, Iervolino remains AFS' support coordinator for New Jersey.

She noted that while students are hosted less than a year, it rarely marks the end of the journey. "I love it when my kids come back," Iervolino said. "It's not the end, it's the beginning of a lifelong relationship."

Still, while the success rate has been remarkably high, there have been instances where the host and hosted just do not click. "If there is no connection, no chemistry, we'll move them," Iervolino said. A mid-year "Reality Check" also is scheduled to get everyone up to speed on how students have been getting along so far. One such reality check is scheduled for this weekend, at The Presbyterian Church in Morristown.

Many happy returns appear in the future for Nina, who said, "I definitely want to come back."

Dream, busy preparing dinner, simply smiled wide and shook her head.

Meanwhile, Iervolino remarked how her mouth still burned from trying a pepper Dream was using for the night's dinner, Tom Yung Goong soup and Pad Cha, spicy fish balls. "I just had a little bit," she said.

Tanya Van Order January 25, 2013 at 12:05 AM
Great article! My brother and I were AFS students (1978 and 1980 respectively) and we're currently visiting his host family in Italy right now. I married an AFS student from my host country. It really changes your life!
Erin Aukland February 04, 2013 at 05:55 AM
I am an Academic Coordinator for Cultural Homestay International.. We also have Host Families around the country and students from around the world. These lifelong relationships and the "growing up" changes that happen to these amazing kids is unbelievable. If you have the opportunity to be a part of an exchange program .. Jump in with both feet!

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