The American Experience


photo by Provided by Tony Johnson

Tony and Lori Johnson welcome junior Pedro Prats at Orlando International Airport. Prats arrived in the U.S. on July 29.

John and Donna Painter have been hosting foreign exchange students since before this year’s seniors were born. They became empty nesters after their daughter Amy left for college, and they have hosted 16 students since, coming from countries like Pakistan, Brazil, Russia and Germany.

The Painters are the host family of junior Niklas Gierse, who hails from Munich, Germany. He is one of five foreign exchange students attending Hagerty, each of them getting their own version of the American Experience.

“It was the first time for me to be cool like that.

Though junior Eliot Barat from Tours, France, could already sing and dance, for the talent show, he decided to whip out his Chinese yo-yo, something he had been learning since he was 6.

“I could sing, I could play piano, but I decided to [Chinese yo-yo] because it was more impressive,” Barat said. “I had to do something with it.”

After his performance, he began putting his yo-yo away to go out on stage for the results, but a sound began to register in his mind. The crowd was chanting his name.

“El-ee-ot! El-ee-ot!”

Having been in the country for only two months, Barat had already made an impression with the student body. He was one of the more prominent examples of the exchange students getting involved.

“You learn a ton about yourself, you get out of the comfort zone and [have] a ton of new experiences that you would have never imagined,” Gierse said.

Gierse has the most extracurricular activities of the students- he is a part of Key Club, jazz band, the Modeling & Simulation Club and plays junior varsity lacrosse. Senior Rebecca Gehrer, from Austria, joined the cheerleaders and the track team, Barat also found the track team, and German sophomore Sina Homann found cross country and Best Buddies, which allows students to interact with those with disabilities, something German people do not normally get to do.

“In Germany, if you have a disability, you go to a completely different school, so you never actually meet people with disabilities which is really sad,” Homann said.

Homann hopes to try and start a club similar to Best Buddies upon her return to Germany.

“She looked like a three-year old that had just seen Snow White for the first time.”

Homann grew up watching American TV shows and movies, including High School Musical, expecting them to be a glimpse into the American lifestyle. She thought about how there would be separate cliques the jocks, the nerds, etc. This ended up being slightly inaccurate, but she appreciates now being able to experience it for herself.

“Some things are true, but some things are really exaggerated,” Homann said. “You see a lot from the outside, but you see even more if you’re really in the country.”

The sentiment is shared with the Painters, who in their years of hosting exchange students, have made it a point to give them a taste of not just the American experience, but also the Florida experience.

“We want the kids to experience what we would call, you know, the traditional Florida things that you cannot do anywhere else,” Donna Painter said.

All the host families’ students had excursions and events that gave each exchange student a different slice of the American pie.

Gehrer got to experience the Hindu holidays of Diwali and Navaratri that bring together the local Indian-American community, the Painters brought Gierse along as they traveled across the country from Denver, Colorado to Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, and senior Spaniard Pedro Prats got to canoe the Wekiva river, but Homann got to have a the chance to witness the American melting pot in action.

“It’s nice to see different cultures,” Homann said. “Now, I have a Jewish friend and I never had a Jewish friend before.”

However, through all of these diversified experiences, one came up consistently: Disney World.

With the theme park only 45 minutes away from Oviedo, it became a must-do for all the host families.

While Barat considers his native country’s Disneyland Paris to be superior to the Magic Kingdom, junior Aashni Patel, Gehrer’s host sister, personally witnessed the Austrians star struck reaction.
“She looked like a 3-year old that had just seen Snow White for the first time,” Patel said.

While the students were absorbing American culture, they also began to spread some of their own.

Prats surprised his host family, the Johnsons, when he made spaghetti, then proceeded to add eggs to it. Barat is also capable in the kitchen, cooking a few French dishes, including crepes and quiche.

“[It is] really enjoyable to share with other people,” Barat said.

While the U.S. was making an impression on the students, the students were also making one on their host families.

“I always wanted a brother.”

Freshman Anthony Johnson grew up with two sisters, but with both of them now off to college, he started wondering what it would be like to have a brother. After suggesting the idea to his parents, he ended up gaining one in Prats, who comes from Mallorca, an island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain.

“It’s not boring at the house anymore,” Johnson said. “It’s just like hanging out with a friend.”

Prats added a new dynamic in the Johnson family. The two have gotten into several shenanigans, whether they were partying with friends, playing pranks on each other or crashing the family golf cart into a tree.
Gehrer and Patel, by contrast, bonded through more sedentary activities.

“Most of time, we watch TV,” Patel said. “A lot of times you just sit there and make fun of each other.”

“It’s a lot to ask, but it’s a very enriching experience.”

Taking in an exchange student is not anything to take lightly.

“It’s very important to select your child, your student, based on the sort of little nuances and dynamics that are already involved in your family,” Johnson said. “Pedro was a social type kid, which fit our family dynamic.”

However, if these students’ experiences are anything to go by, they show how they are able to bring enrichment into the lives of all involved.

“Opening yourself up to the world is a step forward to peace,” Barat said.