By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — There is no shortage of exchange programs at Niskayuna High School this year.
On any given day, American students could bump into a gaggle of Spaniards in the cafeteria or chat with Germans at a football game. Several different languages echo up and down the halls.
But until this year, most of these programs have been short-term, lasting just a couple of weeks at most. They’ve also been coordinated through third parties.
That changed with the enrollment of five long-term exchange students this year, visiting from Austria, Germany, China and Turkey.
Ed Alston used to be the district’s foreign language director, but retired in 2013. Now, he spends his time vetting candidates for Niskayuna’s new exchange program. Once they’re here, he supports them and answers their questions.
So far, though, the students don’t seem to need much help. Just two months into the school year, they all have more friends than they can count, and they’re doing well in class, too.
“I like the way Americans teach,” said sophomore Maxine Ying, whose home is in China. “Our teacher always asks questions for us to think about our lives. It’s very meaningful.”
Ying shares that particular class with fellow sophomore exchange students Amiya Sattler of Austria, Lennart Juckel of Germany and Blair Wang, also of China. Turkish student Zeynep Balto, a senior, was absent from school as the others spoke to Your Niskayuna.
“She’s a very good example of a good English teacher,” Juckel said of their instructor, Kelly Millett.
The exchange students, who all had to prove their excellent English skills before being accepted to Niskayuna, embraced the reflective style of literature study.
Alston said those engaging classroom discussions represent one important way the international students enrich the local community.
“Classes are based on discussion, and perspective enhances discussion,” he said. “It makes the American students think and adopt new points of view.”
Alston is retired from his 35-year career as a foreign language administrator, including 12 years as foreign language director at Niskayuna, but you’d hardly know it. He dedicates much of his time to the foreign exchange program and its students, and even keeps an office in the high school.
After so many years of focusing on foreign language education, Alston is an expert at describing its importance. He speaks six languages fluently, has traveled to more places than he can count, and spent his entire professional life watching cultural education change lives.
“That’s a position where you find all about people’s home cultures,” he said. “Pretty much my whole life is about this.”
Naturally, there are plenty of benefits for the visiting students. They gain independence and insights about themselves alongside their cultural education.
“Going to a different country alone is a good way of finding out your strengths and weaknesses,” Sattler said.
The students also agreed that the American emphasis on exploring a variety of interests is a welcome change of pace from more rigid educational systems in Germany, Austria and China.
Ying and Wang both attended boarding schools in China, which they said is a common path of education there. Wang said at her boarding school she had class from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, and was required to wake up before class to exercise.
Wang said free time in America had taught her a lot about herself.
“We have more free time to think about life,” she said. She discovered an interest in biology, which she will continue to pursue.
Sattler and Juckel agreed that the difference, for them, isn’t just free time — it’s all the activities students can choose from during that time.
“In Germany you couldn’t do a club at school,” Juckel said. “No one would go to a club.”
Sattler said in Austria there were some clubs and intramural sports available, but they weren’t as well-attended as at Niskayuna.
They’ve wasted no time taking advantage of those opportunities. Juckel plays JV soccer and Balto is a varsity swimmer. Together, Ying and Wang founded a Chinese club at Niskayuna High, where they show films and TV shows, give presentations about geography and their hometowns, and plan to cook Chinese food.
For some of the students, Niskayuna provides educational avenues they couldn’t have found in their home country. Alston said Balto worked hard to find a way around rules that say public schools can issue a student visa for only a single year.
She ended up using a different type of visa each year, taking on one that required her to pay tuition during the second year. But he said it was worth it for Balto, who is on track to graduate with the class of 2015. Alston said she had found educational opportunities at
Niskayuna that wouldn’t have been attainable at home in Turkey.
Even though the visitors like a lot of things about America, they remain proud of their home countries. Whether directly, as with the Chinese club, or indirectly during class discussions, they are always willing to teach something new about their heritage.
Alston said though it’s a lot of work to organize, the exchange program encourages a world view that’s crucial in today’s professional culture.
“Students who go into high-powered careers have to collaborate with people from other countries,” he said.
It’s not just knowing other languages, though that never hurts. It’s also important for students to be able to acclimate to different cultures, Alston said, because it makes them more valuable to any team.
He recalled a particular success story from several years ago. A former student’s parent called him to relay good news: her daughter had just gotten a job with a global accounting firm in Manhattan.
“She got the job because she was the only person who could speak three languages,” Alston said.
Niskayuna families that would like to host an exchange student for the 2015-2016 school year can email Ed Alston at email@example.com or call 382-2511 ext. 21722. Stipends are provided to host families.