After graduating from high school in France, Elena decided to embark on the PSE exchange program for a full academic year in Rockford, Illinois.
Elena states that the biggest challenge was leaving her family in France. “At first, I didn’t think it would be that difficult. I was super excited, but then going to a new family I found nothing was perfect. My English wasn’t that good which made it hard to communicate. It was hard for me to get along with them at first, and I felt very lonely. I missed my family and the peace of my familiar environment in France.”
Mary Ann, her Local Coordinator, remembers when Elena first arrived in America. “She was terrified of the unknown and the strange place she landed. Nothing was the same, and she wanted security from the family and friends she left behind.” Mary Ann recalls, “Elena’s host family was new, and when she cried from being homesick, they didn’t know what to do. They wanted Elena to feel safe, be happy, and gain their trust. Little by little, the family gained her trust as she saw they cared about her.”
Adjusting to a new country, culture, school and family can be overwhelming. The support from Elena’s host family, Local Coordinator, and school made all the difference in helping her to adapt. Elena reflects, “I think there is no magic solution to how I felt. In time, my English improved. I found that communicating with my host family, Local Coordinator, friends, and teachers at school was important. They all helped me and made my experience better.”
Mary Ann describes Elena as easy-going, sincere, honest, and likes to discover new things. “She is someone who enjoys life, family, and friends. Many days after school or sports, you will find Elena in the kitchen helping her host mom prepare a meal because she not only likes to cook and bake, she loves being around people!”
Elena says that living with her host family, which consists of all females, is a lot of fun. “We talk and laugh about everything and have an amazing relationship. I love them because they are sincere, true, and they treat me like I am a part of the family.”
Elena’s host mother, Lisa, strives to provide meaningful experiences for Elena and to keep her busy with enriching activities.
“We are never bored. We are always busy, and I like that!” shares Elena. She says that she conquered her homesickness by staying busy with her host family, friends, and at school.
Some of Elena’s favorite memories with her host family are going to the apple orchard, eating donuts, making popcorn, going to a Disney show, and spending Easter with family. She especially enjoyed going to Schaumburg with her host family for her host sister’s birthday.
“We did a lot of shopping and spent two nights in a hotel. It was a great time together. We also went to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and I loved it. I’ve never been to an aquarium before and the dolphin show was amazing!” she shares.
According to Mary Ann, as the Christmas holiday approached, Elena’s homesickness resumed. She missed her family in France very much. “With the help of her host family and the excitement of Christmas, Elena surprised herself by feeling good!”
Moreover, Elena shares a few school-related experiences which helped her overcome her feelings of homesickness while on the exchange program. Although challenging at first, Elena learned that perseverance really does pay off!
Elena joined her school on a trip to Covenant Harbor in Wisconsin where they enjoyed camping, canoeing, archery, climbing, tug-of-war, swimming in the lake, and many other activities. “It was a really fun time and opportunity to start knowing people from my class outside of school,” she shares.
One of Elena’s favorite memories is attending the Homecoming dance with her friends. “It was a new experience for me because we don’t have this in France. It was a fun night of dancing, having fun with my friends, and making new friends. It was amazing and fun!”
At home in France, Elena enjoyed watching basketball games with her Dad. Elena is very tall, so everyone encouraged her to play basketball. Coming to America, this was something that she wanted to try, so she joined the basketball team at school.
“It was very hard at first. The first practice was terrible. It was exhausting and stressful because I had to go to another school and be with people I didn’t know,” Elena says, but she never missed a practice and her hard work paid off. Eventually, she started making friends and enjoyed being part of the team. “My coach was so amazing and encouraging, and that made me enjoy going to practice!”
After a few weeks of practice, the team had their first game. Elena says, “I was on the Varsity team, but at the beginning I didn’t play a lot during the game because it was my first year. With time, I started to get better, and my coach put me in the game for longer periods of time.” The more Elena improved the more her love for basketball grew. She saw so much success over the course of the season.
Elena says that the friends she made on the team and her coach helped her get through the holiday season when her homesickness was at a high point. “We had some amazing moments and we laughed all the time! I’m a Senior, so I had the senior night which was amazing and encouraging. We had fun going to Ohio for a tournament. It was a fun time with my friends, playing basketball, eating, and spending time at the hotel together.”
Elena shares that she and the other students had a lot of fun together. “I think that what I like the most about basketball is being with friends and the atmosphere during a game – everyone is screaming and encouraging each other!”
Mary Ann shares, “Elena had never played the game before coming to America. She went from learning the game in Illinois to competing with her team in Ohio!” In the end, the basketball tournament was a huge success. Elena’s growth in the sport is a testament to her perseverance.
Before coming to America, Elena had an interest in art, but limited experience. “I had never really painted, and I drew a little bit, but not that much.” Elena was determined to take an art class even though her advisor said the schedule would not allow it. She found a way.
Elena recalls her first art project; a still-life fruit painting. “It was really challenging, but with time I discovered how to paint the fruit and the shadow in a realistic way.” Elena calls herself a perfectionist. “If you ask me what I think about my painting, I want to do it again because I think I could do better.”
Regardless, her painting was selected to be showcased in the art show at a local college!
Then, Elena’s art teacher informed her that they would be painting ducks for a competition. “I was apprehensive about this project because I’ve never painted animals before. I had only one week to do it. It was a lot of work at school and at home, but I was very proud of the result.” Her painting won 1st place in the Illinois state contest.
Mary Ann is impressed with Elena’s artistic talents. She shares, “Several of her art pieces are now being displayed in the local art gallery.”
Elena reflects on how the exchange experience changed her as a person:
“This experience made me work on myself. For example, living with a younger sister who is 7 years old taught me to be more patient with others. I’m also more independent because I’m alone in another country, and I had to learn to live without my parents. I learned to stop caring about what people think, and just do whatever I want to do. I learned to say yes to new experiences, which took courage. I realized that I really want to do something with art in my future, but also that I need to keep speaking English, or other languages, because that makes me understanding other people and discover new cultures. French is always going to be my language, but I feel like myself when I speak other languages.”
Elena sends an encouraging message to exchange students starting the program:
”Arrive without any expectations! When I first came, I wanted a big school because I love being around a lot of people. When I realized that my class had only 9 students, I was disappointed. However, being in a little high school doesn’t mean that your experience is going to be bad. It’s going to be different, but that can be good! I also think that you must give your host family a chance. Don’t expect them to be perfect. They may be very different than your family back home. They may have different viewpoints from yours. You may find them annoying sometimes, but you are the one who must adapt yourself to the family. I think that this experience requires a lot of courage, but it’s a great experience that makes you grow as a person and gives memories for life.”
Mary Ann closes with this message for Elena:
“Elena, it has been so much fun getting to know you this year. I have watched you grow and mature to a wonderful young lady. You have shown patience, determination, perseverance, and you know how to handle difficult situations without being superficial. Elena, you took a unique journey and stepped out of your comfort zone to become an exchange student. Most people will never experience this opportunity and you have done it with grace and humbleness. These are two characteristics that are rare and sought by many people. As you move on to the next phase of your life, remember you can do anything you set out to do. With your work ethic and effort, you can make all your dreams come true.”
Written by Flo Webb; Edited by Lauren Lunt