Lea is a 15-year-old from Austria, who has embarked on a full academic year as a PSE exchange student. She never imagined that connecting with her host family and being involved in her school theater program would have been so rewarding. Between rehearsals, academics, and exploring Rockford, Illinois, Lea is living life in America to the fullest.
Her host mother, Melanie, says they have shared a special connection from the start as host mother and daughter. She explains, “I am first her ‘Host Mom’ and she is my ‘exchange student.’ However, she knows that I am also a friend to her just as much as she is a friend to me. We both understand that we still have our own lives with people our own age, but we are always there to help each other through the day to day.” Melanie shares that love and friendship has grown between all the family members as Lea has stolen their hearts. And the feeling is mutual.
She describes how Lea has blossomed during her stay:
“I would describe Lea as Lea when she first came to my home and Lea now. She was a bit shy, but yet I could see she had a lot of herself that she wanted to share. Along the way, she has learned to open up and be herself. She is a fun, funny, caring, empathetic, kind, very polite and intelligent girl who seems pretty confident in her own skin and is always ready to try new things, whether it be food or new adventures. It is these qualities that I believe she has noticed in herself just this year as an exchange student which has helped her blossom into a new kind of Lea. She has a pure zest for life!”
Lea is a sophomore at a private high school in Rockford, Illinois. She appreciates that there are fewer students than what she is accustomed to in school, and that everyone knows each other. “It is more home-y, which gives you the opportunity to build closer connections to the people you’re around. There are many other exchange students here too!”
Lea never imagined how the theater program at school would impact her life. “I have become even more passionate about theater and having a (theater) class here in America is amazing!” She says that she did not know what to expect and thought it would be more like a club meeting once a week. To her surprise, the class meets approximately three times a week, and after school rehearsals occur every day consistently before a performance.
Lea describes what the class entails: “We do many things including reading scripts, discussing techniques, and learning how plays are produced.” She recalls one activity where the class members wore different attire (ex. Victorian dress, jeans, etc.), walked around the room, and acted out the style of walking and talking depending on the clothing worn. In fact, Lea says that her favorite thing about theater is having the ability to get into a role and pretend to be someone else, present that character to the audience, and help them get to know the character in a new perspective.
Lea’s Local Coordinator, Mary Ann, is continually impressed with how Lea is handling the busy schedule. “Lea goes above and beyond to fit in. She is polite, responsible and does a good job managing stress and time management.” Mary Ann goes on to explain Lea’s participation in the theater program along with a full academic class schedule, “Lea frequently expresses how much she has grown and how she is able to manage her life since she arrived on her exchange journey.” The schedule may be busy, but Lea is excelling both in the classroom and on the stage.
In addition to the performing aspect, Lea says that she loves hanging out with her friends in theater class as they share the same passion. “It is so fun working together on something that we present to people in the end and being something that they can enjoy watching!”
Her favorite production was called “The One Act Play Disaster” where she played the Director. “This was my favorite production because it was supposed to be chaotic, so you really couldn’t mess up and there wasn’t any pressure. I had a great part because I was able to sit in the audience as the Director and see the play act out. It was a lot of fun!”
Another favorite was the production “Sorry, Wrong Number” where Lea played two parts – an Operator and an Information Provider.
The class performed this play twice in one evening at school. It was such a hit that they took the same performance to a large and well-known event in Illinois called “Theater Fest”. Here, different high schools across the state convened in one location to attend theater workshops and perform for each other. “It was fun waiting in line to the event because I met a lot of people who share the same passion for theater. The vibe was immaculate!” She describes how it felt performing in front of so many people. “The audience was huge! It felt even bigger because the people were so into it and the energy was so high” she exclaims.
Melanie notes how excited Lea was when she returned home from Theater Fest. “She had so much to tell me. I know that weekend had a definite impact on her. I would love to take her to show after show after show. If she didn’t have to go to school and me to work there wouldn’t be a theatre in the tri-county area that wouldn’t know us!”
Melanie shares a favorite memory of Lea. “It is no secret that she loves theatre. Earlier in her stay here when she was still a bit shy, I caught her performing in front of our cat. It was as if it were something out of a movie. She went all out! When she finished, I clapped and cheered bravo! She turned in great surprise. She had no idea anyone was watching. She was very embarrassed, but we laughed so hard. I also love hearing her laugh with my kids. They always have a great time together!”
Mary Ann said that “some favorite memories of Lea include not only her time on stage but how much time she spends in the kitchen with her host family. She shares in making meals, baking cookies, making an Austrian dish to share, or just cooking up something because she feels like making it. Her host mom loves the surprises and appreciates all the foods she makes whether it is an American or Austrian recipe.”
Whether she is enjoying food with Melanie at their favorite restaurant, The Norwegian, or eating her favorite dish at home (Melanie’s homemade meatloaf with ketchup and onions on top), Lea is living every moment to the fullest.
Mary Ann shares this message for Lea:
“Lea, you came on this program with no expectations, you had an open heart to learn the culture and American life style, and above all you were open to change. You used these qualities to build relationships and communicate with your host family, friends, and teachers. You reached out for help when needed and asked questions to learn. You stepped out of your comfort zone and as the days went by you liked your new self so much more. Congratulations Lea, you not only impress an audience from the stage, but you truly are an outstanding Ambassador from Austria.”
Lea’s exchange experience has inspired her to want to travel more and live in a variety of places. “In the future, I want to study Classical Literature, Latin, Ancient Greek, Psychology, and of course Theater!”
Melanie closes with this message for Lea:
“Lea, hosting you has been a great experience, and my heart has grown bigger. I will be sad when you leave to go back home, but excited at the same time. I truly can’t wait to see how the exchange experience here shapes your life as you continue on your journey into adulthood. We all hope to see you again here in our home as well as someday visiting you in Austria!”
Written by Flo Webb; Edited by Lauren Lunt