Program bridges countries, changes perceptions - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Topstory

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Program bridges countries, changes perceptions

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Posted: Thursday, March 4, 2010 12:00 am

Before the Moe family brought Danilo, a foreign exchange student from Montenegro, into their home, most of their family members had to look at a map to find the country.

Now they know and, after living with Danilo, they also know that families in Montenegro aren’t all that different from those in Ahwatukee Foothills.

The Moe family moved to Ahwatukee Foothills less than a year ago, and daughter Anna befriended a foreign exchange student named Isa in her German class at Desert Vista High School.

“Isa is from Bavaria, and she was a smart, articulate, artistic and wonderful young woman,” said Robin Moe, Anna’s mother. “She told us about the exchange program and that there was a young man named Danilo still looking for a home to stay at because the parents in the home he was originally slotted for needed to travel for work.”

After researching the International Student Exchange program and meeting Danilo, the Moe family decided to bring him into their home for the school year. Since September, the family has learned a lot about a country they knew next to nothing of before meeting Danilo.

“Montenegro is a relatively new country right by the Baltic Sea that has only had its independence for about four years,” Robin Moe said. “It has been really interesting hearing Danilo’s perspective of a country gaining its independence.”

All cultural norms aside, it has been an adjustment having a teenage boy live in a family with two teenage girls and an 8-year-old boy.

“American football and baseball are sports that Danilo has never been exposed to,” Moe said. “Helping him play those for the first time and then taking him to see professional games has been very exciting.”

For Moe, perhaps the most surprising part of having Danilo stay with her family has been discovering similarities.

“Danilo’s father is an attorney, and his mother is a professor; and I’m a teacher, and my husband is an engineer, so it’s very similar,” she said. “Even though he’s from Montenegro, he is very much like an American boy who hangs out with friends, talks on his cell phone and chats on Facebook.”

Pascale Dunton, an Ahwatukee Foothills resident who heads up the International Student Exchange in the Tempe Union High School District, is seeking new host families for Desert Vista. If enough families are found for Desert Vista, Dunton still wants families to volunteer because the exchange students could also attend local charter schools.

“I think that hosting an exchange student opens your cultural understanding, and I really do feel that if we understood other cultures better we would be seen by the rest of the world differently,” Dunton said. “So often our children have trouble even finding foreign countries on the map, and this gives them a chance to interact with foreigners on a daily basis.”

Dunton came to the U.S. as an exchange student from Switzerland in 1980 to learn English.

“I fell in love with America, got married and ended up staying here,” she said.

In 2003 when Dunton was traveling in Europe, she noticed that the world’s perception of America was changing, and she was saddened by it.

“I found myself drawn into political conversations abroad, and I had to justify my own country,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to make a difference, and I found that getting involved with foreign exchange students and helping them experience a normal family in the U.S. would help.”

Dunton hopes the children she helps come to the states will share their experiences with their friends and family at home.

“The kids are so impressed and amazed by the generosity and kindness of the American families that when they go home they tell their own families, friends and neighbors,” she said. “One child at a time is returning to their home country and spreading the good news about American people, which makes me feel good.”

For more information on the International Student Exchange, e-mail Dunton at Pascale-dunton@cox.net.

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