International exchange students prepare to go home

Simona Rahi and Sheryl Oberding
Simona Rahi and Sheryl Oberding

By Meagan Downey

Two international high school exchange students, Simona Rahi and Philipp Puender, are wrapping up a full year of studying abroad at Champlain Valley Union High School. It’s a bittersweet time for the students. While they are excited to go home, they have also grown close to their host families in Shelburne. Both Rahi and her host mother, Sheryl Oberding, get a little teary when she says, “I left my home of 16 years to come here for 10 months. Now I’m leaving my home of 10 months forever.”

Rahi, 16, was one of approximately 20,000 students that applied for a scholarship to live abroad through the Program  of Academic Exchange (PAX) last year. While many parents are afraid to send their children so far away, she says her father strongly encouraged her to apply. He recognized the benefits Rahi will reap from this experience for years to come.

Rahi learned about the scholarship opportunity when her teacher introduced the PAX program to her class. She wrote essays, took tests, and underwent a six-month application process. Her determination, she says, came from the belief that if she could make it here, she could make it anywhere. PAX is a nonprofit educational organization driven by a mission to increase mutual respect among the people of the world, foster an appreciation of differences and similarities, and enhance the ability to communicate with one another.

While Rahi’s airfare, visa, and other costs are sponsored by the scholarship, she was required to perform community service with groups like the Salvation Army and Ronald McDonald House charities because it is considered a vital part of American culture and provides hands-on learning of the host community. Rahi must also serve as an ambassador for her home country of Lebanon, making presentations to school and community groups to educate Americans about Lebanese life and culture.

Rahi fields many questions during these presentations, encountering a number of misconceptions about life in the Middle East. The American media’s focus on war, violence, and death in her homeland has left some of her peers wondering whether teens in that part of the world use cell phones and tell jokes.

PAX Area Manager/Community Coordinator for Vermont, Kelley Cartularo, says Rahi is a particularly impressive leader and change agent in the program. “I watched her make a presentation in front of a group of esteemed businessmen and women and she was not intimidated at all,” Cartularo reports. “She is really special. I will never forget her.”

L-R: Dana Adams, Philipp Puender, Kelley Cartularo, and Holly Fournier
L-R: Dana Adams, Philipp Puender, Kelley Cartularo, and Holly Fournier

Cartularo works with approximately 45 students and host families every year to provide support through a life-changing experience that is often emotional. Holly Fournier and Dana Adams, who opened up their home to German exchange student, Puender, last year, say that the resources PAX provides are invaluable. “Kelley has helped us not just with the practical considerations, but she also told us there would be an emotional period we could expect in October,” said Fournier. “That information has been really helpful to us and to Philipp.”

Cartularo and her staff organize regular gatherings for the students so that they can socialize and connect with others going through many of the same emotional and logistical challenges. In May, PAX is organizing a hike up Mt. Philo where the students will wrap up the cycle of learning abroad and look to the future.

Puender says he is grateful to his host family for supporting him while he has immersed himself in just about every kind of sport possible during his stay. He has particularly enjoyed the diversity of classes available to high school students in the U.S. and looks forward to continuing his studies when he returns home in June.

It’s clear that both the Oberding and Adams-Fournier families have grown to love these bright and thoughtful teenagers and have also learned from the experience. In the case of the Oberdings who have now hosted five sons and daughters through the PAX academic exchange program, serving as a host family has become a way of life.

Cartularo says that any adult, couple, or family who is interested in being a host family should consider completing the host family inquiry form on the PAX website at www.pax.org. PAX students are between the ages of 15 and 18 when they enter the U.S. and come with their own spending money to cover school, phone, and recreational expenses. Host families are simply asked to provide students three quality meals a day, a place to sleep and study, transportation to and from school activities, and a warm and supportive environment.

To learn more, email Cartularo at kelleyc@pax.org or call 373-0011.