At Wilde Lake High, diversity welcoming to exchange students

There are more than 1,200 students at Wilde Lake High School — a diverse mix of young adults representing the heritages of nearly 50 countries, according to Principal James LeMon.

LeMon said he thinks it's that diversity, and the welcoming nature of students and staff that makes the Columbia school a good place for exchange students.

"Wilde Lake's motto has always been, 'A place where diversity excels,' " he said. "It's a huge plus for the exchange students to have a lot of different cultures and a lot of different countries represented at Wilde Lake, so they come in and feel comfortable in their transition here."

There are five foreign exchange students at Wilde Lake through the AFS-USA (formerly the American Field Service) program, and 27 in the county at large. For the first time this year, AFS-USA honored more than 80 schools across the United States as "Top Schools" for international exchange students.

Wilde Lake was one of only two Maryland schools to receive the honor.

According to AFS-USA, Wilde Lake has worked with the AFS Team in Baltimore to host students and send students abroad.

"With their help, the Baltimore Area Team has become one of the strongest AFS teams in the East Coast region," AFS wrote on its website.

For the five exchange students in Wilde Lake's classrooms — Balquees Aldeek of Palestine, Manuel Larranaga of Argentina, Julia Rocha of Brazil, Laura Rochor of Germany, and Sophie Wannenmacher of Austria — their time in America is coming to a close. After living for the entire school year with host families in the Wilde Lake area, they're preparing to go back home in June. In the meantime, they're trying to make the most of their experience.

"When I was nine years old we had an exchange student from Belgium living with us in Brazil," said Rocha, 17. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I could never do that.' How can you do that, just leave everything behind? But this kind of experience, there's no bad side. You're learning so much. You're meeting people from around the world and making friends with people around the world."

The students are much like any other student at Wilde Lake: they're involved in extra-curricular activities and they have to study for exams and quizzes. "Kids are kids," Lemon said.

"I really believe that," he added. "They're from different cultures, but they're all similar in a lot of ways."

The group gets asked some strange questions by their curious classmates, they said. Wannenmacher, 16, was asked if Google exists in Austria, and once Rocha was asked if numbers were the same in Brazil. The funniest, though, was asked of Larranaga, he said.

"People ask me what direction our toilets flush in," said Larranaga, 17, laughing. "I guess the water goes the opposite way? It's like, I don't know. I've never noticed before. Who notices that?"

The group experiences some form of culture shock nearly every day. Nearly all of them have gained weight from American food, and they're baffled by the variety of options Americans have for things like chewing gum and toothpaste, Rochor said.

Adjusting to American culture can be difficult, said Rochor, 16, and real life isn't much like the movies she's seen. Wannenmacher said a big difference from her life in Austria is the quality of friendships she's forming. Here, she's friendly with many classmates, but she still feels her closest friends are back home. The group said they consider each other the best friends they have made in America.

"We've all become pretty close," Wannenmacher. "We're all in the same situation, and we have the same problems. We feel like we can talk to each other."

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