Exchange student enjoys year in 2 Columbia homes


April 07, 1999|By Heather Tepe | Heather Tepe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ALEJANDRO GIRONAS is a handsome, brown-eyed teen-ager with an engaging smile. And Giro -- pronounced "hero" -- as his friends call him, has reason to smile.

He is an exchange student from Los Andes, Chile, who was welcomed into the homes of two local families this year as part of the American Field Service intercultural program.

AFS, an international nonprofit organization founded in 1915, provides opportunities for people to gain knowledge, practice skills and acquire the attitudes needed to live and work harmoniously in a global society.

The group exchanges nearly 10,000 participants each year worldwide, with hosts and guests from the United States making up about 40 percent of the total.

In August, Giro arrived in the United States to attend Wilde Lake High School, while living with the Watson family in the Hickory Ridge neighborhood of Hawthorn.

Paul and Susan Watson and their children -- Luke, 21, Forrest, 16, and Ariell, 9 -- had been hosts for exchange students twice before.

Paul Watson is impressed with the benefits of welcoming a student from abroad.

"We wanted our kids to have some cross-cultural experiences," he said. "That way, they'll get a better sense of the world, rather than just the little world that they live in. It's a lot of fun and also an eye-opener."

Since Giro's arrival, Watson has noticed cultural differences -- both large and small. For example, while making lunch one day Watson asked Giro if Chileans could buy peanut butter. Giro answered, "Yes, but it's not very popular or available."

Also, Watson said, "Chile is south of the equator, and they have reverse seasons from ours. They get their summer vacation in January and February."

School begins in March and is in session until the middle of December.

Giro, 17, said he wanted to come to the United States to improve his English skills.

"I studied English for four years in school," he said, "but it's different here. I also wanted to learn about other cultures."

He noted some cultural differences.

"In the United States, teen-agers finish their activities at 12 o'clock at night," he said. "The first month I was here, I couldn't believe that. In Chile, we finish at 2 or 3 o'clock" in the morning.

"Almost all the parents in Chile accept this," he said.

Giro also noted, "In Chile, we greet someone with a kiss on the cheek, but in America you say `hi' or give them your hand."

Chileans, he said, are more affectionate and less reserved than Americans in most ways, with one notable exception: "In Chile, when a group of boys and girls go out, the boys make an effort to treat the girls more like ladies. The boys watch their language and open doors for the girls.

"If a Chilean boy burps in front of a girl, well, that is too bad for him."

The schools also are different in Chile, Giro said. For one thing, the teachers change rooms between classes instead of the students.

"Schools in the U.S. are easier," he said. "Here, I am studying physics as a senior. I studied it in Chile for four years. It is a requirement. Since in the United States you study a subject for only one year, the course is more basic."

He said the Chilean requirement for uniforms in school is better than allowing students to choose their own school clothes because, "here, there is competition for who uses better clothes."

Giro was scheduled to stay with the Watsons for six months. After that, he hoped to find a new host family.

"Our spring is very hectic," Paul Watson said. "Forrest is on a travel soccer team, and our oldest son is graduating from the Naval Academy, but we wanted to make it happen for one semester."

The family kept Giro with them for an extra month until he could find a new home.

That's where the Altscher family came in.

Aaron Altscher, 17, is a senior at Wilde Lake High.

"Giro was one of my friends at school, and he told me about his situation," Aaron said. "He asked me if I knew of anyone he could stay with to finish out the school year. I didn't want to see him go or have to readjust to a whole new school and a new lifestyle."

Aaron approached his parents, Harry and Diane Altscher, about having Giro move into the family's Dorsey's Search home.

That happened last month.

The Altschers have invited Giro's parents to stay with them when they visit in June for their son's graduation.

Aaron and his sister Allison, 20, have participated as exchange students through the Columbia Association's Sister Cities program, staying with families in Tres Cantos, Spain.

Diane Altscher was pleased about their experience there.

"I think when kids participate in this type of program, they become comfortable travelers," she said. "It breaks through a barrier about going to another country."

She added, "When you travel, you find out that people everywhere are basically the same."

Altscher, a psychologist, is sensitive to the difficulties of settling down to a school year in a foreign country.

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