By Sarah Glenn
For the Journal
BLACKFOOT â€“â€“ Joanna Baird has welcomed international exchange students to Idaho for the past five years. Their first exposure to rural America usually includes a trip to Walmart and a root-beer float.
â€śThe biggest excitement they probably have coming to America is getting to see school spirit,â€ť Baird said with a smile, recalling students she welcomed into her home whose idealized vision of the American teenage experience was the Disney movie â€śHigh School Musical.â€ť
Between 80 and 100 foreign exchange students call southeastern Idaho home each year. They come with the help of the Education First High School Exchange Program.
The program is aiming for a bigger presence in Idaho and is actively recruiting host families.
Baird is an international exchange coordinator through Education First and says that most area high schools have one more spot for a foreign student. Snake River High School will accept as many exchange students as wish to come.
Baird spends her time matching host families with foreign students, working with schools, checking up on students and hosting her own teens from across Europe and Asia.
â€śItâ€™s a big extended family once you get started,â€ť Baird said.
Host families in Idaho come in all shapes and sizes, from young couples to the retired. Each has gone through an application process, and Education First requires that everyone in the house older than 17 undergo a background check. After the application process families can then take a look at the students who are on their way and find a good match for their home.
According to Baird, the host family application can take two hours or more to complete and is extensive.
â€śA family has to make at least $20,000 a year and not be on public assistance to host,â€ť Baird said.
Other application requirements include references, a home interview and a letter to the student.
The studentâ€™s application also contains a wealth of information.
â€śIt shows what they are interested in, if they play any sports, if they are willing to go to church, essays and other information,â€ť Baird said.
This year five exchange students have paid an extra fee so that they can request where they want to go â€” they chose Idaho.
â€śKids have come and gone back home, and they talk about Idaho,â€ť Baird said. â€śIn the past few years there have been seven or eight kids who (after returning to their home countries) have signed up to recruit for EF (Education First). They are promoting Idaho.â€ť
All Education First exchange students are between 15 and 18 years old, coming from one of 13 countries across Europe and Asia. Students come speaking English, live in the U.S. for at least one but usually two semesters and attend the local high school.
Education First High School Exchange Year is designated by the U.S. State Department as an exchange program sponsor. Nationally the Education First High School Exchange Program welcomes about 3,000 foreign students into American homes every year.
â€śHosting an international student is a truly life-changing experience, and weâ€™re excited to find wonderful new host families in communities all across the country,â€ť said Dan Sodervall, president of EF High School Exchange Year. â€śThe exchange experience is as rewarding for the host family as it is for the student. You bring a new culture into your family and community, you fulfill an international teenagerâ€™s lifelong dream of living in America and you form a lasting relationship that spans the globe.â€ť
Families who are interested in hosting can contact Baird at 681-4946 or visit efexchangeyear.org for more information.