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KINGSBURG – You’re likely not going to travel the 18 hours and 25 minutes it would take to fly to Eastern Europe to visit the Ukraine or Moldova. But if you happen to talk with Anastasia Shaydenko or Alexandru Bularga at Kingsburg High, you’re minutes away from learning about life continents and oceans away.

Shaydenko, 17, is from the Ukraine while Bularga, 16, is from Moldova. Both are juniors at KHS.

Shaydenko lives with the Thompson family which includes parents Chad and Juli and their two sons, JT and Connor. This is the second time the Thompsons have hosted an exchange student.

“It’s something amazing because I have always wanted to have brothers,” Shaydenko said. “I have only an older sister at home and I thought, ‘Oh finally!’ But reality’s different than the expectation,” she said with a hearty laugh. “We’re close in age, but it’s different because boys are really different than girls.”

Bularga lives with Matt and Casie Reddell, and their children Cameron, Caden, Montana, Molly and Mackenzie.

While Shaydenko dreamt of becoming an exchange student for years, Bularga said his decision was more of a whim.

“It was pretty random. My English teacher back home told me there was an opportunity to become an exchange student. So I tried out,” he said.

“For me it was my dream. I tried out like three times and last year was my last chance to go. When I won, I was so happy. It was my goal for a long time,” she said.

Both say it’s uncommon for exchange students to be enrolled at their schools since typically most teens want to visit the United States.

“If you ask a random person, especially teenagers, they’ll always say they’d want to come to the U.S.,” Shaydenko said. “America is like another world. There’s a lot of technology and development. School and society is different and the traditions and history is different. Yes, the countries in Europe are different, but we have the same systems of education and same schools.”

Shaydenko sees the effort the United States’ educational system makes in preparing students for college and future careers and feels students here have much more opportunity than in her home country.

“You have a lot of scholarships to go to college and schools help them get the professions they want. They have a big amount of opportunities here.”

Now that they’ve been living in Kingsburg since August, the students say they realize the small community is different than even other nearby towns.

“It’s Swedish and it’s quiet and it’s so pretty and nice. Everything is different here,” Shaydenko said. “In my first month, every day I’d discover something new. I’d walk to school and see something new every day. I was surprised how you have food everywhere.”

For Bularga, he said while he knew he was heading to the United States, he didn’t know which state he’d live in, nor about his host family.

“The host family picked me. Back home, I’m the only child in the family, but here I have six siblings. It’s a huge house and it’s super fun. Everybody has their own thing and there’s always something going on. It’s never quiet. That’s the best thing about it that it’s so different.”

Bularga said he’s discovering just how large the United States is as they’ve traveled to Los Angeles and Knott’s Berry Farm.

“The first thing I realized was it’s huge. You have to use a truck or car everywhere you go. Maybe in L.A. or San Francisco, there are subways, but here, you have to have a truck or something to drive around to go to work, or go eat. It’s just ridiculous. America is huge.”

Shaydenko said when she returns to the Ukraine, she’ll miss her host family, their cats and especially the sense of school spirit at Kingsburg High.

“I’m in percussion and I was in marching band. I think it was the best decision in my life to join band because they’re amazing with their spirit. They’re really a team. I play piano, but now I can play bass drums and cymbals.”

Both students encourage local families to consider hosting students since it adds a whole new dimension to the host families’ lives.

“You can make the dreams of someone come true and you’ll have a really good experience and make a friend for life. Now, like my host family only has sons, but now I’m their daughter,” Shaydenko said.

Michelle Pattillo, a local World Link Inc. coordinator, arranged these students’ educational experience in Kingsburg and is looking for more local families to sign up for the next school year.

“Hosting an exchange student gives you and your family such a broader understanding of the world, the people, and its different cultures,” Pattillo said. She’s hosted seven different students herself so she speaks from personal experience.

“A host family will learn just as much, if not more, from that student, as the student will learn from them. Hosting a student means you now have another child, who happens to live on the other side of the world, who will forever be a part of life.”

Those who are interested in hosting may contact Pattillo at 368-9470 or mpattillo13@yahoo.com. While there is no set deadline, the sooner families get in touch with her, the more time they have to consider different profiles to find the right fit for their family.

“With as much as these kids do in our communities, I love that everyone can see who they are, where they come from and what they are up to,” she said.

As a local coordinator, Pattillo seeks and secures host families, completes all the paperwork for the family approval and school acceptance, provides support and guidance to both family and student, mentors the student and serves as the liaison between family/student and the placement organization.

Their agency places students through the Future Leaders Exchange and Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study programs, which are sponsored through the U.S. State Department. 

“The students compete against tens of thousands of others, with only a two percent acceptance rate,” she said. They are here on full scholarship and have medical, dental and vision coverage, a $125 monthly stipend to help with their personal expenses, allowances that cover all school registration fees (ASB and yearbook) and $300 allowance to help cover school supplies and extra-curricular activity costs.

Host families provide a regular size bed for the student, but they may share a room. Host families also provide meals and reasonable transportation.

While here, the students have minimum requirements to meet, Pattillo said. They complete 30 hours of community service, join a leadership club at school, give at least one cultural presentation during International Education Week in November, maintain a 3.0 GPA and build strong ties with their host families and American peers.

“Even though these are the minimum requirements, the greater majority of students by far exceed these minimums. They are strongly encouraged to share their experiences of diversity, learn the American culture and plan and implement a Global Youth Service Day project.” 

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The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.

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