This year, nine students from Europe are walking the halls of Franklin County high schools.
Erik, Mika, Aske, Andres, Abril, Peter, Freja, Isidro and Lili are here through Education First (EF) — an international education company — and staying with families in St. Albans, Richford and Enosburg.
EF’s exchange program gives young adults the chance to experience the U.S. as a native, rather than as a tourist, according to its website. Host families provide safe and secure homes in typical U.S. communities for high school students choosing to study abroad for a year.
Nichole Jacobs, a Richford resident and an EF international exchange coordinator, supervises the students while they are here, checking in with them frequently to ensure they are safe and well-cared for.
She became an organizer in 2015, and since then, has welcomed several exchange students into her home and placed dozens of others in locations across northern Vermont.
“I thought it was super neat and wanted to get involved, and then I just sort of went full bore with it,” she said.
Prior to working with EF, Jacobs had few out-of-country experiences. World travel was a door she had previously seen as closed to her.
“I didn't think those kinds of things were possible, and EF definitely helps make travel possible for not only the students but for the families over here to be able to go as well,” she said.
This school year, Jacobs and her family are hosting Aske from Denmark. He was supposed to study in the U.S. last year, but deferred because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s now attending Richford High School and playing on the soccer team.
Jacobs said once a host family submits an application and is approved, they can begin communicating with their student before they arrive.
“You really get to know each other before they even come,” she said. “We knew [Aske] was going to be a really good fit for us because we've been able to communicate with him and his family for so long. But now that he's here, he’s really amazing.”
Each year, Jacobs and her family enjoy hiking to the top of Jay Peak and going skiing with their student. The family also shows him or her around New England and usually attends an NBA basketball game.
At Christmas, Jacobs asks her student to contribute one of his or her traditions from home. Her Christmas tree, she said, is filled every year with the native flags of the students who have stayed in her home.
“The relationships that you make with the kids and their families are one of the biggest pros,” Jacobs said. “You don't even necessarily see it happening to the fullest extent until you're into it and then you're like ‘whoa’ because in the beginning there can be some ups and downs.”
After the honeymoon period, when the exchange students first arrive and are excited to be here, they can get homesick, Jacobs said. Students and their host families have to learn to cohabitate, and that can be hard.
“But once you get through that, and everything starts to come back up on the upside, it just smooths out and you're living together like it's normal,” she said.
It was challenging this year, Jacobs said, to find enough host families in Franklin County. A few spots at Bellows Free Academy and Missisquoi Valley Union went unfilled. She thought this was likely due to the pandemic.
In late August, all nine students staying in Franklin County and their host families gathered together for a boat ride on Lake Champlain. On Sept. 19, all 27 students studying in Vermont will convene in Burlington for orientation.
“Everybody goes and meets everybody and families get to ask questions and meet all the other host families,” Jacobs said. “It’s really fun and gets the kids involved.”