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Opening minds here and abroad Exchange program enriches students, hosts


Noemie Nagel will return to her native Dijon, France, this month with a year's worth of memories: American high schools, baseball games, shopping malls, big cities, new friends, two more sisters and a second set of parents.

The 17-year-old exchange student, who's lived with a host family in Annapolis for six months, also will go back a slightly changed person, she says -- more mature, more open-minded, more self-reliant.

Exchange students such as Noemie enrich not only their lives but the lives of their host families and others in the communities in which they live, says Sarah M. Viccellio, Noemie's American host mother and a director of AFS Intercultural Programs, which brought the French teen to the United States.

Viccellio, who has opened an eastern regional office on West Street in Annapolis, is struggling to find enough American families to play host to 1,000 students from around the globe who will arrive in August in the Eastern U.S.

AFS, a non-profit, community-based student exchange group -- one of the oldest and largest in the world -- relies largely on volunteers to recruit families, raise money and run student orientations.

Though she has worked for the organization for 14 years, Viccellio and her husband, Hank, had never opened their home to a foreign student until Noemie moved in last summer. The teen-ager essentially became a third daughter, an older sister to the couple's two girls, Augusta, 3 1/2 , and Anne, 2.

"It's an amazing experience to get to know someone from a different culture, to understand that despite the fact that there are cultural differences and different ways of interacting and different modes of behavior, there are so many similarities," Viccellio said.

At the beginning, "you laugh about all the obvious cultural differences," such as eating and dining habits, she said. "But the similarities are what come out."

Noemie applied to AFS after her mother suggested doing so. The student thought of the United States as "a big dream" and took the journey in hopes of improving her English and preparing for a possible international relations career.

From the start, she faced major adjustments, leaving her friends, parents and 12-year-old sister behind, learning new customs, starting new schools. Before attending Annapolis High School, she attended a high school in Washington state, where the Viccellio's lived before moving to Anne Arundel in January.

Noemie, who speaks nearly fluent English, said she found her schoolwork less difficult than in France. But she found it another matter trying to break into well-formed cliques at each of the high schools, especially with an added language barrier.

"She's made a huge effort," Viccellio said. "She never sat back and waited for kids to call her. She went out of her way to get to know people."

Noemie's year in the United States has left her "more open-minded," she said. "I don't judge people the first time I see them."

Viccellio says families often miss out on a one-of-a-kind experience because of misconceptions about the program. They incorrectly believe they must have children of their own, a teen-age child or a non-working mother.

But AFS seeks all kinds of families, most importantly those that are open and highly motivated to act as hosts, Viccellio says.

Other families hesitate because they fear they can't afford another "son" or "daughter."

Viccellio says families must provide the student his or her own bed, meals and transportation for either a semester or a year, but anything extra is up to them. AFS focuses on immersing students in communities through school and family activities, rather than giving them a trip through their host country, she said.

AFS operated during World Wars I and II as the American Field Service, an ambulance corps that drove the battlefields.

In 1947, the group formed a program in which American families played host to young French and German students, to help heal the wounds of war, increase international understanding and prevent future wars.

The New York-based group will place some 2,700 students from 45 countries in the United States this year, about 55 in Maryland. It will send American students to those countries, Viccellio said.

Among other countries, students come from Argentina, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Honduras, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Yugoslavia.

The new Annapolis office was chosen for its proximity to Washington and the location in a smaller community. It will serve the area from New Jersey to Florida and as far west as Michigan.

Anyone interested in hosting a high school student for a semester or a year or in volunteering should contact Viccellio at 280-3000 or 1-800-876-2377.

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