Foreign exchange programs change lives, enrich communities, and create international relationships that last a lifetime.
The Brown family in Nebraska City, which is hosting its 22nd foreign exchange student this year, can testify to all those realities.
Turn the calendar back to 2000. That’s the year that the Browns decided to take the chance and bring in their first foreign exchange student.
Norm and Nancy Brown had discussed adding to their family through adoption and spoke with agencies about that possibility. They had given some thought to fostering a child as well. Neither of those situations seemed like a fit.
Norm had some previous experience with foreign exchange students since his father had hosted seven students and the family knew the area representative for the foreign exchange program in Nebraska.
After overcoming some initial hesitance, Norm and Nancy began to look at student profiles, but had doubts it would work out.
School was already in session for the 2000-01 year. Still, the Browns reached out to then Nebraska City High School principal Mark Adler, who said the school was more than willing to take a student.
Norm recalled that there were two candidates being considered. Alex Eversberg, a student from Germany, ultimately was selected and arrived in Nebraska City in time to be included in the homecoming festivities for that year, an ideal event for the student to meet with staff, students, and members of the community.
Immediately, the Browns knew they were on to something.
“It was a hit,” Norm said of Alex’s time in Nebraska City. “We had such a good experience with Alexander that we decided we were going to do it again.”
Neele Bartsch, another German, arrived at the Brown home for the 2001-02 year. And again, the family had a great experience.
Norm said Neele was the athlete he had always wanted to be in high school. She played volleyball and basketball and, on top of that, was a wonderful student. A tradition was born, but the Browns had no idea how long it would continue.
Nancy was expecting the couple’s only child, Nick, when foreign exchange student number three arrived for 2002-03. Nadene Bose, another German, kept the streak going.
After Nick’s arrival, the Brown’s decided to take a year off from the program to focus on their own child. But the pause ended with the arrival of Friederike Rickers, the Brown’s fourth German student. She attended NCHS in 2004-05.
And the yearly flow of students has been continuous since as the Browns have now hosted 18 Germans, two Italians, one student from the Czech Republic and one student from Brazil.
Alessandro Vignola, an Italian, is the latest foreign exchange student and the Browns are cherishing the time with him just as much as any other.
For Alessandro, the thought of being foreign exchange student No. 22, was a bit intimidating. Alessandro said he knew the Browns would have a complete understanding of the program. In fact, maybe they would be too familiar with it.
“I was a little bit afraid,” Alessandro said, adding that his main concern was that the family might not be as engaged since the experience would be so commonplace for them.
Alessandro’s brother had been the 12th foreign exchange student for a family and had reported a lack of connection with the host family. And since bond with the host family is essential to having a positive learning experience, one could totally understand why Alessandro was concerned.
He quickly found out that, for the Browns, this foreign exchange experience was a new and exciting every time.
“It doesn’t matter how many kids you have, you still get excited and nervous,” Nancy said.
The bond was formed quickly, so much so that Alessandro believes he enjoys two families now, his family back home and his new family here in Nebraska. He finds himself referring to Nick as his brother.
All the experiences the Browns have in the foreign exchange program, Alessandro said, have made it easier for him to be comfortable. Upon his arrival, Alessandro said Nancy spoke to him about guidelines that spelled out what Alessandro could expect from the Browns and what they expected from him.
The guidelines gave Alessandro answers and pathways to answers for the problems he might face along the way. And, being so far from home, those guidelines became lifelines.
“It helped me so much,” Alessandro said. “They knew exactly how to help me.”
Alessandro, like all of the other foreign exchange students before him, is getting the chance to immerse himself into American midwestern culture and the Brown family is getting the chance to get to know and develop a deeper relationship with another student.
It’s been a great success. Nancy said part of the success the Browns have enjoyed with Alessandro and other students comes down to common connections. In the selection process, the Browns seek out students with profiles highlighting interest in activities and sports.
The Browns are big supporters of Nebraska City athletics and extra-curricular activities. Having students who have those same interests has led to each student being more engaged in student life which leads to a fit at the school and a common tie at home.
In addition, Nancy said the Browns make an effort to communicate with the parents of their students to assure a common parenting style and to assure open communication. Working with the area representative helps to identify issues and find solutions.
The school, both administration and teachers, have been fantastic in building a support structure that leads to success.
“It’s nice because there is support to make sure it works,” Nancy said.
Creating comfort actually begins before the student ever reaches the United States. Thanks to social media and multiple different avenues of communication, Alessandro was able to start talking with the Browns before he arrived. Nick said he was texting with Alessandro and got to know him and his interests so that when he got here, there wouldn’t be conversations crippled by awkward silences.
Still, there is a “getting to know you” type period. And that can be tough.
“Italian culture is so much different from the American culture,” Alessandro said.
Alessandro said the first week was the most difficult. He didn’t know anyone at the school. He knew Nick, but the 2021 NCHS grad wasn’t going to be at the school. Nick talked to people he knew at the school and the school is certainly used to the Brown’s having a foreign exchange student. But the first day(s) are still hard.
Alessandro recalls visiting with just a few people on his first day.
Fortunately, Alessandro came to Nebraska armed with some information. His mother was a foreign exchange student in 1986. He has a brother and a cousin who went through the program too.
And when Alessandro arrived in America, he didn’t go straight to Nebraska. He had a three-day experience in New York where he got to make relationships with other foreign exchange students entering the country.
When Alessandro got to Nebraska, he had Nick. And that’s a big deal. Nick grew up watching foreign exchange students introduce themselves to the community every year. He could anticipate what Alessandro was thinking. Nick focused on being a support for Alessandro and acting as an older brother.
Alessandro got comfortable and started getting that immersive experience that’s promised by the program. Most recently, Alessandro took on the role of Elvis for the NCHS Pops Concert in a performance of Jailhouse Rock. And host mom Nancy snapped pictures to send back to Italy.
Nancy said Alessandro’s mom was thrilled with the pictures and commented that her son looked “rich” in his sparkly apparel.
Alessandro has been excited to participate in the many activities and sports here in Nebraska City and gets a thrill out of everything that’s different from school life back in Italy. A pep rally might be commonplace for Nebraska City students. Alessandro is used to club sports where supporters are few so he loves to see the support and passion from the community and gets a kick out of listening to the pep band and taking in the whole experience.
Right now, Alessandro is looking forward to prom. The memories being made, both for Alessandro and for the Browns are too numerous to mention. And 10 months seems like a long time to make memories. But it’s already March and that means that the end of the experience is getting closer by the day.
Saying goodbye after a school year of memories will be hard for the Browns and it will be just as hard for Alessandro, whose family will be coming to America for sightseeing with their son before heading back to Italy.
Of course, Alessandro misses his family, and he can’t wait to see them. At the same time, he knows that he won’t be seeing his friends or family from here for a long time. In some cases, he’ll never see them again. And that’s the heartbreak.
The Browns say they do get to keep up with former students more now in the age of social media. Such connections were not possible back when the Browns hosted their first student. Still, it’s much different for the Browns to go from having their student to seeing him or her on facetime. There’s an adjustment to be made.
The Browns go on without that daily connection to their student and the student goes back home to fit into their former routine.
Getting back to a routine at home can be difficult for the foreign exchange student. In 10 months, friends change and mature. Will the connection be the same? One of Alessandro’s friend groups back home has broken up since he left for America.
Adjusting to and then away from the foreign exchange experience is not easy, but the Browns and Alessandro are happy with the way the experience is going. So maybe those transitions are worth the work. Afterall, the bonds continue.
Nick recalls the conversation around his senior year and the idea of not having an exchange student. Nick said he wanted to have one because having a new student each year was all he ever knew. And Nick was sure glad that the decision was made to host Federico Maccari in 2020-21.
The two carved out a fantastic friendship and made countless memories that enriched Nick’s senior year and made it unforgettable.
Going through a list of memories would simply take too long, but all the Browns agree that their foreign exchange students have been an extension of their family. “Having such a big family and having so much love, that stands out to me,” Nancy said, adding that she always wanted to be a mom, but never dreamed of being called mom by so many children. “I have just had so much love that’s been in my life.” Norm agrees.
“It’s amazing just to have the bond with that student. It means so much,” he said.
Nick said he has appreciated the sibling connections he’s got to have with foreign exchange students that he would not have had as an only child. He also says he enjoys giving each student a unique American experience.
Alessandro said he will go back to Italy with confidence gained from taking on a tall challenge. It wasn’t guaranteed to work. Alessandro said he has a lot of very strong bonds of friendship at home and that his family thought it might be too much for him to come to America and be away from his familiar surroundings. He has met that challenge and said he feels going through it will give him confidence to face challenges in the future.
While their experience with Alessandro is not over yet, at least some thought is being given to the idea of hosting foreign exchange student No. 23. If the experience stops this year, the Browns will look back on all the connections with a full heart and a big smile.
They’ll maintain those relationships with past students, some of whom have gone on to have families of their own. The Browns count seven grandchildren in Europe. And during a family vacation to Germany four years ago, they got to see a number of former students and realized that the bond is as strong as ever.
The temptation is to bring in another student. With the Browns track record of success, it’s hard to argue against that. Nancy said Nick is in favor of bringing another student in just to make sure that the parents are doing alright.
“Every year, we think, ‘Is this going to be the year we are going to quit?’ It’s hard to keep going. It’s hard to stop,” Nancy said.
The Browns are hoping to decide either way soon so that, if they choose to continue, they’ll have time to select a student and begin building a relationship.
For next year to go seamlessly, the Nebraska City Public School Board of Education will need to know by its July meeting.
As reported by Nebraska City News Press