A beneficial exchange

Wed, 06/18/2008 - 10:20am
By: Emily Baldwin

A beneficial exchange

When Peachtree City residents Ian and Cathy Tracy’s 15 year old daughter Ashley came to them last spring and announced that she wanted to move to Costa Rica for a semester of school, they had no idea what her proposal would mean for them over the course of the next year.

In the spring of 2007, Ashley Tracy made up her mind that she wanted to experience a little more of the world and to immerse herself in a new culture, so she got online and found AFS Intercultural Programs.

Started in 1914 by A. Piatt Andrew, the American Field Service (AFS) was a volunteer ambulance service during World War I. The AFS mission was to transport wounded French soldiers. By 1917, AFS had grown to 2,500 drivers who had carried more than 500,000 wounded. Upon Andrew’s death, Stephen Galatti became Director General of the organization in 1936. Galatti helped create AFS Fellowships in French universities which sent 222 college students both to and from the United States between 1919 and 1952.

Over the past 90 years, AFS, which now goes under the name AFS Intercultural Programs, has given over 325,000 individuals international experiences of a lifetime in more than 50 countries.

Once Ashley had done all the research, she came to her parents and told them she wanted to go to Costa Rica for the second half of her freshman year of high school.

“She’s always had a deep fascination with the Latin American countries and Spanish so she knew she wanted something like that,” explained Cathy of Ashley’s decision to go to Costa Rica. Also factoring into her selection was her age – younger students have a limited number of countries they can visit through the exchange program.

“She was already gone in her mind,” laughed Cathy of her daughter’s excitement and determination. After looking over Ashley’s research, Ian and Cathy agreed to let Ashley go. Once she started the application process through AFS, the Tracys began to get information on being AFS host families as well.

The family began their own hosting application process at the end of March 2007, and in August they welcomed Apisara “Eye” Rattanawiboon from Thailand. Eye, who is also 15, is one of 18 AFS students who lived and studied in Georgia this year. From Sukhothai, Thailand, Eye, as she is affectionately called by friends and family, has one younger sister, who is 13, and her parents are both science teachers. As part of their culture, most Thai children are given a nickname at birth. Eye means “shy” in Thai.

Eye became interested in participating in an exchange program last year. While Ashley is studying in Costa Rica for a semester, Eye chose to come to the United States for a full year.

With little time to adjust to her new surroundings, Eye enrolled at Starr’s Mill High School as a sophomore the day after arriving in the U.S. Thankfully Ashley was able to help Eye transition into her new school. From riding the bus to learning about the various clubs offered to students, Ashley was able to help Eye make a start in unfamiliar surroundings. Clubs proved a helpful way for Eye to make friends at Starr’s Mill. She joined the Anime Club, the Scrabble Club and the FCCLA Club and says that they helped her make friends quickly.

About leaving home and living across the world for a year, Eye says, “[It was difficult] at the beginning, but now it’s good.” Soft-spoken but smiling, Eye clearly has become a part of the Tracy family over the past ten and a half months. When she returns to Thailand at the end of this month she will jump straight back into school, repeating the 10th grade in order not to miss anything her fellow classmates have learned.

Of school in the U.S. versus in Thailand, Eye says that it is more relaxed and even claims it as one of her favorite parts of her experience. During her time here, Eye has traveled with the Tracys to Colorado twice and to Texas.

“She’s been to an American wedding, she went to homecoming, we’ve been camping a couple of different times,” Cathy says of the different experiences Eye has been a part of during her time here.

“Thanksgiving,” Eye quickly adds to the list.

“We’re trying to show her a lot of the American way of doing things,” Cathy says.

The Tracy family, Ian, Cathy, Ashley and Curt, a 20-year-old student at Georgia Southern University, have been Peachtree City residents since 1996. They transferred to town from Dallas, Texas because Ian is a pilot with Delta Air Lines.

Since the end of school, things have been fairly relaxed for Eye. She’s not fond of airplanes, so the Tracys want to make sure that her last few weeks with them are relaxing and enjoyable.

“It’s been great. We’ve had a wonderful time,” Cathy says about hosting Eye. “It’s been fun. Having somebody new, it’s like all these things are new again, you can show her all the things around Atlanta and Peachtree City. You’re trading off one teenager for a new teenager.”

In fact, the Tracys have learned that, while there are differences between Ashley and Eye, in may ways teenagers are simply teenagers no matter where they are from.

“That’s one of the things that I guess is surprising to me,” says Ian. “Yeah, there are individual things that are different, but their all so much the same.”

Eye likes to sleep late and spend time with friends, she likes many of the same movies any American teen might like and golf cart rides around town, and perhaps most of all she likes to use her computer to socialize. Thanks to modern technology, a webcam helped Eye stay in touch with friends and family from back home throughout her time here.

The timing of Eye and Ashley’s experiences are interesting as well. Eye arrived in August, and in February, Ashley headed out to Costa Rica for her own cross-cultural experience.

“I think that in the beginning they at least got to be together, and Ashley got to experience what it was like to be a host,” remarked Cathy of the timing.

Eye will depart on June 29 to partake in a pre-departure camp with other AFS students and Ashley will return home on July 21.

Eye says she has enjoyed her time in the U.S. and cites school, her host family and gaining a little more independence as her favorite aspects of her experience. Likewise the Tracys have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Eye.

“For me it’s just been so exciting to learn,” Cathy explains. “I just never really thought that much about Thailand, about looking stuff up. And now I find myself on the Internet all the time, wondering about this or that, especially before she came. That for me has been really fun to learn about a different culture, and to learn about it first hand, really and truly what it is like.”

“It’s just always fun to meet people from anywhere, but from such different cultures, to learn about them and see how different we are and how similar we are,” adds Ian.

Speaking with the Tracys and with Eye, it is clear that they have made a lasting connection with one another. It will be hard for them to let Eye go at the end of this month, but what a great experience they have had together.

To learn more about AFS Intercultural Programs, visit www.afs.org.

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