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The Value of Hosting an Exchange Student

Published: October 29, 2019

Russian high school students walk across the Brooklyn Bridge
Our first stop in New York City: a walk
across the Brooklyn Bridge. 

At 16 years old, I had the opportunity to host an exchange student from Saint Petersburg, Russia, through the Russian program at my high school. She stayed at my house for two weeks in the fall of my junior year, and I spent a significant portion of time with the group of other exchange students staying with my classmates. During the two weeks, we visited New York City, took a trip to Connecticut’s favorite UConn Dairy Bar, attended a high school football game, carved pumpkins and more, but above all we just spent time hanging out. 

Going into the exchange, I had anticipated a new and different cultural experience. I assumed the students would have a uniquely Russian perspective to offer, or that I would learn of an entirely different way of life. To some extent, this was true. All people are shaped by the place in which they were raised, and one of the largest cities in Russia is certainly not suburban Connecticut.

Jack-o-lanterns
The Russian students' first experience 
carving pumpkins for Halloween.

However, what blew my mind was actually how very normal everything felt. It is not as though I ever anticipated sitting in silence with absolutely nothing in common, but I was amazed to find a group of students who could have been my own classmates. We shared interests, similar senses of humor and general high school experiences. All of us played sports or attended clubs after school, enjoyed eating out with friends at restaurants and were very excited about the latest iPhone.

Why Learn Russian? poster

Everyone in the group loved to travel and we took turns describing the various things we had seen and all the places we dreamed of visiting in the future. Not only was hearing of travels fascinating, but I even learned new ideas for future trips. During this time, the fall of 2016, the upcoming United States presidential election was making international news, and the students were quite curious about President Drumpf. They wanted to hear our thoughts, and were interested in American opinions of him, as I was of the Russian perspectives on President Putin. 

However one of my fondest memories is sitting around a bonfire with a group of other members of the exchange, both Russian and American. We munched on s’mores while playfully making fun of each other and trading stories about our friends and families. We were consulting each other about photos to post on Instagram and taking Snapchat videos of silly dances, while griping about various stressors, like school or mindless drama at school. Bonfires and s’mores just like this were such a quintessential experience for me growing up that it basically felt like I was with the same people I’d gone to school with for so many years. We were just ordinary teenagers who happened to speak different languages. 

These two weeks subverted my expectations, forcing me to consider that perhaps we as people have much less dividing us than we believe. In fact, I feel strongly now that it is crucial we think more about the ways in which we are connected as humans, than the ways in which we differ. This begins with the study of languages. Without studying Russian, I would not have ever had the opportunity to meet the wonderful students I did without traveling to Russia myself. While I would never claim that studying another language can overcome centuries of history and prejudice and war, I do believe that the first step to the formation of a connection is communication. One cannot ever begin to understand another’s motivations and values without first literally understanding the words that person is saying.

About the Author

A headshot of Katrina Cubanski

Katrina Cubanski is a second-year Global Studies major and Environmental Studies minor at Colby College. She is in her eighth year studying Russian, and she completed twelve years of Spanish in the Glastonbury Public Schools System. She is interested in social justice, environmental conservation, public policy and foreign language.

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