Westfield High School opened its doors to two international exchange students this year. Now halfway through their American high school experience we wanted to see the impact exchange has on the community and the students.
“Studies show that people who travel are more creative than those who do not. This is effect is almost certainly because travelers get exposed to people who see things differently from them and have very different experiences in life. Having exchange students in the high school is way for us all to benefit from these effects without having to get on a plane.”
This is the view of Robert Ebert, who teaches social studies at WHS, commenting on the exchange students in Westfield this year.
He went on: “Having students in class who can share their different experiences, norms and values gets us all to reflect on our own thoughts and values and suggests how we can change (or keep) them and where they come from. I think this experience is very enlightening and liberating. I have had many great experiences with exchange students in my class and look forward to many more.”
“I feel very lucky that I came to this town. It is exactly like a set in Hollywood movies and TV shows,” commented Nora Skranefjell from Stavanger, Norway. She is one of two AFS students in Westfield. And one of 39 AFS students from 21 countries in all of New Jersey.
The other student at WHS is Aline Senn, from Romanshorn, Switzerland. Aline spent her first semester on the WHS cross-country team. “Now, most of my friends are on the track team and it’s a lot of fun to go to the meets and practices and spend time with them.”
We sat down with the two students to get their view on school life in the USA.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST ADJUSTMENT TO LIFE IN NJ?
The American school system is quite different from the Norwegian. Back home I hadn’t had a bell directing me since elementary school, so it felt a bit weird in the beginning. I also haven't had homework since 7th grade so that was a bit overwhelming. High School is more like college in Norway; you apply to a school based on your grade level, personality and what you’re planning to study, so your peers are all very similar to you. I appreciate that we have a bit more freedom at Westfield that other NJ high schools, and a higher level of trust than other schools have in their students.
In the beginning it was hard for me not to be able to use public transportation. In Switzerland everything is smaller, the places are closer to each other and there is a big network of public transportation. I struggled with asking for rides and not being able to walk everywhere I wanted to.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT CHANGING YOUR CLASSMATES EVERY PERIOD?
For me it’s a bit stressful to change classrooms all the time. Since your choice of school in Norway depending on what you want to study, you are given one group of students that you spend the whole day with, in the same classroom, The teachers rotate, so since you spend the whole day with the same 20 people, you get very close. We also generally eat lunch in the classroom, and it’s not common to buy lunch in the cafeteria,
One big difference is that we stick with the same class for four years of high school. That means that we spend the whole day with the same people, whereas in the US one switches from class to class. Also we are not able to choose our own classes, they are chosen for us. Another big difference is that there are no sports offered at the school. All the athletic programs take place in clubs.
WHAT ABOUT ACADEMICS?
The school system here has been quite hard to adapt to. I’m used to tests being more thorough, like writing a couple of paragraphs for each question. We don’t use multiple choice at all. At first I thought it would be much easier since you can just pick an answer, but when the questions are being asked in a different language, and the answers are quite similar, it becomes very hard.
Students, teachers and staff at Westfield High School have been very welcoming and open-minded. I really enjoy going to school here. In the beginning it was hard because I did not know some of the material that the students learned before I arrived. But the teachers are very nice and willing to adjust some of their plans. On the other hand some of the subjects like French are easy for me because we are ahead in the material in Switzerland.
TELL US ABOUT FIRST IMPRESSIONS
In the beginning I wasn’t aware of how informed the parents are about your student life. I’m used to the school not contacting my parents without my consent. I once had some math homework to finish and I had fallen asleep the night before, so I decided to stay home for first period and finish the work. I didn’t see any problem with this since it is totally normal in Norway, but the school contacted my host parent as soon as I wasn’t registered for homeroom.
In the beginning I did not know the town at all and everything was very big for me. So when people gave me rides home and they asked where I lived, I would tell them that I don’t know. It was always funny to be in the car figuring out where my own house could be.
WHAT ABOUT IMPACT ON THE SCHOOL.
I have given multiple presentations in all different classes at the high school and I love doing it! It is very cool to see how fascinated both students and teachers are by a different culture. Sharing my point of view and exchanging cultures and habits contributes greatly to the international understanding and I can already see an impact on Westfield High.”
“AFS Exhange programs are organized by volunteers who believe that those who learn about each others’ cultures during their teen years will contribute significantly to international understanding throughout their lives,” added Sue Fershing, Area Team Chair for AFS in New Jersey (http://www.afsusa.org).