Ed and Anne Casey and their daughters Emma and Cassandra had always considered getting a foreign exchange student.
“Having come from Ireland and feeling kind of alone, being the only foreigner around, mom wanted to bring more culture here,” said Emma.
Anne explained that early last year there was a big story in California about J1 students from Ireland who had a big party (The J-1 visa in the United States is for people who wish to take part in work-and-study-based exchange and visitor programs in the U.S.).
“It was a party for one of the kids that was turning 21. A couple of the kids died,” said Anne. “They were all from Ireland and the blame was put on the kids because they were drinking.
“There was a fundraiser from Ireland, the word was sent out all over Ireland and Irish people abroad to help support the kids with medical bills, etc.”
Anne, a native of the Republic of Ireland and has been here for 14 years, said she knows what it is like to miss home and to miss your family and said it got her to thinking about foreign exchange students.
About a year ago the family heard about the CIEE program. Council on International Educational Exchange and looked online to find more about it. The summer before the boys came they saw the profiles on Alvero and Atom and knew they wanted them, so they didn’t look through many other profiles.
“We didn’t know we were getting them until about a month before they came in July,” said Emma. “We were so excited and we had to get their room prepped and told all of our friends and they were excited!”
The program sent the family a letter the boys had written with their transcripts and forms they had filled out finalizing the decision to have the students come to their home.
The girls said for almost a month they just sat looking over their papers being so excited about the boys coming and how awesome it was going to be.
“We scrambled to get a room together, which is where they live now,” said Emma. “They came here and got settled in. I think we overwhelmed them at first because our friends were so excited to meet them."
“I thought I would have something to offer kids knowing what that all feels like,” said Anne. “I have empathy with them, being away from their parents, being away from their country, going to a new country and trying to learn the language and the cultural and to try to understand the differences.”
Anne said after she called CIEE and put her name down it all happened fast from there.
“We weren’t given that much notice, but we have a group of kids here all the time,” said Anne. “I was delighted to see them all get together and basically role their sleeves up and get everything ready for the boys and do whatever else they could help with.”
Anne admitted she didn’t know what to expect with the boys. She had friends from Spain and from a lot of countries in Europe, as she has traveled extensively. She didn’t care where they came from; she just wanted to give them the best experience.
Anne said the interaction between the boys and the girls from the beginning was great, immediately treating each other like brothers and sisters.
Having two girls of her own and although she had brothers, Anne said having two young boys in the household is a lot different. She doesn’t have any regrets having the boys though, admitting she has learned a lot from Alvero and Atom.
“They have taught me a lot more than actually I could have taught them,” said Anne. When asked what they have taught her, Anne replied, “To be open to other cultures. There is a lot to learn even though you think you know stuff, you don’t know. You can make assumptions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know everything there is to know about the culture, you can’t make a generalization about any culture. It was wonderful to learn that from the boys.”
Anne said one of the things she loves about the boys is their discussions with kids who have come over to their house about peer pressure and similar things.
“For a mother to tell your child that’s not advisable or whatever is one thing, but for a peer to tell you that from a different country, you’re more inclined to listen and I saw that with the kids, I saw them engage and learn from the boys.”
When first describing the boys” personalities, Anne said they were the peacock and the observer. Both boys and the girls agreed with her analogy.
“Maybe that was wrong of me to say,” said Anne, “let me put it another way. I would say Alvero is very outgoing and happy to take the limelight. Atom is more of an observer, he is more willing to sit back and observe.”
ALVERO AND ATOM'S STORY
Alvero Seco Silva and Weeraphat (Atom) Wongbunnak are the CIEE students living in the Casey household.
Alvero comes from Madrid, Spain and Atom from Bangcock, Thailand.
Madrid, Spain's central capital is a city of elegant boulevards and expansive, manicured parks. It’s renowned for its rich repositories of European art, including the Prado Museum’s works by Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters. The population of the city is almost 3.2 million with a metropolitan area population of approximately 6.5 million.
Bangkok, Thailand’s capital is a sprawling metropolis known for its ornate shrines and vibrant street life. The city occupies 605.7 square miles in the Chao Phraya River delta in Central Thailand, and has a population of over eight million. Over 14 million people live within the surrounding Bangkok Metropolitan Region.
Coming to rural Iowa was a cultural shock to both of the boys, especially given the size of Humeston compared to where they both came from.
“I came to a small town where everybody knows everybody and it was a big change,” said Alvero.
Asked what made him decide to be a foreign exchange student Alvero said, “My father kind of forced me, but I wanted to come too, basically to learn how to speak better English." Does he speak better English? Alvero said he thinks so and Emma said he has improved a lot!
“At the beginning, they had to have their phones on hand to use Google Translate,” said Emma. “They are both good at conversational English, but they need to work on their educational English.
“There was somewhat of a language barrier at first, I remember the very first time I was trying to ask them about toothbrushes and they had no idea what I was talking about.”
“Sometimes we still have that though,” said Atom.
“I won’t say there was a language barrier, their English was fairly good,” said Anne. “I do regret I didn’t record them speaking English when they first came. Their improvement in English from the beginning until now is just fantastic it’s brilliant!”
Because they had their own language barrier, neither speaking the other’s language, Anne said the boys were forced to speak English throughout the whole experience and ended up helping each other. Not only with comprehension of English, but helping each other with stuff they had to do, understanding what was going on.
Alvero described his family as a regular family with a mother, father and a little brother who is 11. His father owns an art gallery and his mother works with computers.
Asked about the cultural differences, Alvero said, “I came from a city with six million people to here, which has about 200 people.” “Actually there is about 500,” said Emma. “Five hundred, two hundred, whatever,” laughed Alvero, “Anyway it was a big change.
“It was kind of difficult at the start because I didn’t have a lot of things to do so I was basically bored. Then sports started and school started and now I don’t have time for anything.
“The only problem I ever had was being bored. I could go to the swimming pool, but that would get boring. There is not too much to do in Humeston, but now at the end I think it is interesting. I really like it now.”
“I kind of look at things differently,” said Emma. “We have lived here for about 14 years. We have a lot of fun in the summer, we live in the country, and we go around in trucks, drive, roast marshmallows, fireworks and Watermelon Days.
“Later in July, early August all we had to do was play video games, teach Atom how to play video games, go to the pool.”
When asked if he didn’t know how to play video games, Atom said, “I played video games, but not the type they play.”
Continuing with Alvero’s story, Alvero began, “This program works that you have to fill out a bunch of papers about yourself and your family. What you like and don’t like and what you like to do to have fun. I was going to California.”
Alvero said he had been in contact with the family, they had answered his letter. “I was so excited, because everybody wants to go to California, the best state in the United States. I couldn’t wait to go to the beach, surf and whatever. A week before, the family decided they didn’t want a foreign exchange student. So they moved me from California to Iowa about three days before I came here.”
The first thing Alvero said he thought was “Iowa, I didn’t know where Iowa was, who really cares about Iowa, it’s not really a state that anybody knows a lot about it. So I googled Iowa and it was basically corn, bad weather, farms, tractors and that was basically it, Iowa.
“I was pretty down, I was going to go to California and now to Iowa but, I think I have had a better experience here than if I had gone to California."
Asked if he had made a lot of friends he answered, “Oh yea, I think so.” Asked about girlfriends he quickly answered, “Yea, one only though!”
“At the beginning everybody was obsessed with him,” said Emma. “Everybody and their grandma wanted to meet him. Atom is just comfortable in his room.”
Asked to tell describe himself, Atom began, “I am from Thailand, in Southeast Asia. It is by Vietnam and it is very hot there, the temperature is 90.
“The culture is very different here compared to there. I live in the capitol city of Thailand, which is Bangkok. When I came here and it was such a small town, it was really different!”
Adam said her really doesn’t know many people in Thailand. It is a big city with everybody rushing to work.
When asked what made him decide to come here, Atom said, “It is real funny. Firstly, my mom decided to send me here for a chance at better English and the experience. I thought, okay that doesn’t sound bad for me to come here, but the only reason I didn’t want to is I will have to study my sophomore class again when I get back to Thailand.
“The last week before I came here, I couldn’t decide, should I go or should I stay. That week we had a test and I did terrible on it, I knew it was going to be so terrible. I went home and said mom I think I will go.” Having a hard time understanding the last sentence, Emma clarified by saying, “He got a bad score on a test and his mom does not permit that at all, so he was like sure I will leave the country so I don’t have to face the wrath of my mom with a bad grade.”
Atom laughed and said, “That’s one reason why I came here!”
Three day’s before he got here, Atom found out he was coming to Iowa. “I was like what is Iowa,” said Atom. Same as Alvero I googled it and I found corn, farms and more corn, I mean I like corn, but I have to stay with corn a whole year!”
The information about his host family was received the night before Atom left. He read the information while on the plain and said the first question he had to ask himself was, “who is Cassie and who is Emma. At first I thought Emma was Cassie and Cassie was Emma, because in the information it said Emma was a vegetarian and Cassie was the slim one.
“Because of the stature,” chuckled Emma.
Atom’s family consists of his mom, dad, brother and grandmother. His father is an engineer and builds computers. His mom was a chemist who now has her own business. Atom whose real name is Weeraphat was nicknamed Atom by his mom, because she was a chemist and his brother was nicknamed molecule
The girls said it has been nice having two brothers. “Its been great,” said Cassie, I like it a lot.”
“I was protective of them before I ever met them because they were going to be my little brothers,” said Emma. “Now they really are like my little brothers because they annoy the crap out of me every other day.”
Alvero admits he likes Iowa a lot now. He said it is a great place to relax and maybe be here for two or three years, but Spain has so much more going on. “I like it better here, but not forever. There are more options in Spain that I can do and more opportunities. Iowa is more comfortable, more relaxing.”
Both boys have gotten involved in sports while they were here. While Alvero played soccer since he was five in Spain, it was a lot different than basketball and football. “Football was hard to get, I had never played it before. I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know anything and my English was really bad at that time, so I really didn’t understand what they were saying, but I like football now a lot. I can even watch an NFL game and understand what is going on, it was a really good experience.”
“I thought it was cool that we went to the playoffs this year,” said Emma.
The four all agree that Atom had the hardest time adjusting to his new lifestyle. “He was used to a big class with a small group of friends and here you are a small class with a large group of kids,” said Emma. “He has opened up a lot more now.”
Atom played golf this year and was getting ready to start baseball. Asked if he had a girlfriend Atom said, “No, not like Alvero, but was able to find a girlfriend in three months, as soon as we got here.”
Alvero admits it is going to be very hard to leave with a girlfriend still here, but would like to keep the relationship going.
When questioned about Bangkok, Atom said it was a big city kind of like Des Moines, but a compressed version with more people.
“They have so many people and traffic jams everywhere,” said Atom. “It is so terrible. We have a sky train, which I used to go to school everyday.”
Both boys love the night sky in Humeston because they get to see the moon and the stars. Since they live in big cities, they only thing they get to see are the lights of the city.
The school year has gone very well for the boys and they have made a lot of friends. “Alvero blossomed a lot faster than Atom did, but halfway through the school year Atom started talking a lot more,” said Emma.
“We had prom and the class proxy that the juniors do for the seniors, they were included and I think that really said a lot about the way the school kind of took them in. I was really scared that they would be looked upon as outcasts and as these foreign entities, but everybody was so accepting and the football boys really took them in.”
The most memorable moments here for Alvero were the playoffs and the way the teachers and the whole town rallied around the team, making them feel special. He also said the play was a great experience.
For Atom, homecoming was very memorable because it was fun and different and something they don’t have in Thailand. “I said what is homecoming in the first place and they say we toss toilet paper through trees and people’s houses. It was fun, I liked it.”
Alvero and Atom agree that they have very much enjoyed their visit to the Casey household and will miss the family. Both plan on keeping in touch and would like to visit again.
Of the experience for the boys, Anne said, “This isn’t an easy household, our family has been through a lot, they got to see an actual family, not a showplace. They got to see reality, we deal with issues on a daily basis and they got to see that. Life is not perfect for everybody.”
Anne hopes one of the things the boys learned is you can meet a person on the street, but that is not necessarily the person you meet. She has taught her girls you can meet a girl in school and accept her as one thing, but when you meet her at home she can be a completely different person.
“I have always told the girls, if you are angry or whatever, take it out on me at home, don’t take it out on the people at school,” said Anne. “The boys got to see that, everybody has their home person and everybody has their public persona. It allowed them to express their selves too. That is one of the things they both have said, they got to express themselves here and to be them selves, which is cool.
“We got very, very lucky with the boys, because of their personalities, they fit right in."
Anne said the boys are not her sons by blood but they are family. She said she knows she will see Alvero again because Europe is someplace she goes to, having a lot of family in Europe.
“I am hoping to see Atom again, he says he will be back and I am hoping that is true,” said Anne.
For anybody wanting to house foreign exchange students Anne said, “You’re not doing it for financial gain, definitely not. The benefits outweigh the negative as far as learning and gaining of knowledge. It opens your mind, but you have to open your heart and your house too.”
If your interested in going abroad: “Definitely go for it, don’t be afraid or go off first impressions, because your first month is definitely the hardest. You don’t know anybody and you don’t have anything to do,” said Alvero. “Your experiences from the first weeks are just going to get better and better. It’s going to be hard and it will seem at first like a bad thing because you miss your family, but it is like a new life here, it is pretty cool!”
“You can just be yourself,” said Atom. “If you’re not outgoing just be yourself, you don’t really have to try that hard, you can adjust to the people.”
Both Alvero and Atom agree that if you’re nice, you will have a good experience. “We had a great experience here because the people were so nice!”