PORTLAND — When Quy Nguyen-Dinh was looking for a country in which to study abroad, he chose the United States, partly because of a popular reality show in his home country of Germany.
“It was awesome,” Quy said. “It looked like so much fun.”
But shortly after arriving in August 2009 and taking classes at Portland High School, the 18-year-old discovered high school in Maine was not the same as the one depicted on TV.
“In Portland, everyone gets along with everyone,” he said.
Quy, who is of Vietnamese descent, is one of about 20 foreign students attending high school in greater Portland through Council on International Education Exchange’s high school program.
Founded in 1947, CIEE has been organizing high school exchanges nationwide since 1995 and has since placed nearly 1,400 students from 55 different countries with U.S. host families.
The group established itself in Portland in 2007 and connects more than a dozen students with host families every year.
Local coordinator Nancy Dorrans said CIEE is seeking more host families to expand the number of students it can bring to the area.
“We would like to place as many students as possible in Maine,” Dorrans said. “More host families will bring more students to the area.”
Dorrans said CIEE can place students in school districts throughout the state, but mostly concentrates on southern Maine. School systems like Portland, Cape Elizabeth, South Portland, Yarmouth, Freeport and Scarborough are often very receptive to the program, she said.
Dorrans said host families take a variety of forms – young, old, single, married, with children, without children, rich, poor, well-traveled to never having traveled.
“We have host families of every shape and size,” she said. “That is really a wonderful thing about the program. There is no typical American family and, thus, no typical exchange experience. Truly, we have students in all types of families.”
Dorrans said host families are under no obligations to undertake special activities with their exchange students. All they need to do is welcome students into their home and community, she said.
Families are expected to provide room and board for students, and receive a $50 a month tax deduction for hosting. Students, meanwhile, are expected to have their own spending money for personal expenses, entertainment and eating out, she said.
Several host families sat down for an interview last week.
Portland resident J.C. Edelberg, a 53-year-old psychologist, said his family had always been interested in international exchanges. When the family saw a CIEE booth at last year’s Bayside Festival, they decided to sign up.
“We kind of decided late in the game,” Edelberg said. “It hadn’t been something we planned on.”
The family applied to host a student, submitted a list of references and had to go through a series of background checks, interviews and orientations. They were sent three applications and ultimated decided to invite Mara Dittrich-Salamon, a 17-year-old German student, into their home.
“We just liked Mara better than the others,” Edelberg’s 15-year-old daughter, Abby, said. “It’s been nice having someone at home all the time – a live-in friend.”
Edelberg said the family did some background research on Dittrich-Salamon’s hometown of Braunschweig, Germany. Prior to her arrival, they made signs welcoming her and set up her bedroom.
Dittrich-Salamon said she spent the winter learning how to Nordic ski and liked her host family so much, she decided to extend her stay from five months to 10 months. “It was definitely the right decision,” she said.
Unlike Edleberg, Portland resident Alexandra May didn’t have much time to prepare for the arrival of exchange student Li Hai, a 17-year-old from China. The 56-year-old had just returned home in June after a four-year stay in Hong Kong and wanted to incorporate more Chinese culture into her family’s life.
“We had the reverse experience,” May said. “We stepped into another culture and got a lot out of it.”
Li, who arrived for his 10-month stay in August, said he was excited to come to the U.S. so he could practice speaking English, a language he had studied on paper for about 12 years. It took him about two months to adjust to the language and at least as long to adjust to the culture, he said.
“People like to hug when they meet each other,” Li said. “At first it was weird for me.”
Meanwhile, Sean Dundon, a 41-year-old environmental engineer, said his family planned on hosting an exchange students in a few years, when his kids, ages 10 and 12, are older.
But the family went into action last summer at the encouragement of Edleberg’s wife, Ellen Popenoe, when 16-year-old Lukas Stratmann, of Kirchen, Germany, didn’t have a place to stay when two other host families could no longer sustain the commitment.
“A lot of the high school students at Portland High really embraced Lukas and wanted to make sure he got a place, and my wife is friends with Ellen,” Dundon said. “We didn’t really have to think about it. We just wanted to make sure the kids were on-board with it and they were.”
Stratmann said was thankful the Dundons stepped forward so he could stay at Portland High School, where he was drawn by the school spirit.
Apparently, Stratmann would make certain sacrifices to remain in Portland.
“As long as I had a place to sleep and a school,” he said.
Dundon said he has no regrets about his decision. The experience didn’t only give the family insight into a different culture.
“It gave us some incredible insight into the high school years,” he said.
Families interested in hosting an exchange student and who would like to talk to current host families are invited to a going-away event for current students on Sunday, June 20, from 2-4 p.m. at Bayside Bowl, 58 Alder St..
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Host student Abby Popenoe, second from right, of Portland, with foreign exchange students Quy Nguyen-Dinh, left, of Germany, Li Hai of China, Lukas Stratmann of Germany and Mara Dittrich-Salamon of Germany, who will return to their home countries this month. Another group is set to arrive in August and are in need of host families.
Mara Dittrich-Salamon, second from right, of Germany, with her Portland CIEE hosts J.C. Edelberg, left, Abby Popenoe and Ellen Popenoe.
Portland resident Sean Dundon, left, and Lukas Stratmann, of Germany.
Li Hai, left, of China, and host mother Alexandra May, of Portland.