‘Opportunity to shine’: New Milford High once again hosting foreign exchange students

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
New Milford High School

New Milford High School

Deborah Rose / Hearst Connecticut Media

NEW MILFORD — New Milford High School has hosted foreign exchange students for as long as Principal Greg Shugrue can remember.

“We’ve hosted students from all over the world here,” said Shugrue, adding there has been an average of one to three foreign exchange students every year at the school, with the exception of 2020-2021, due to the pandemic.

This fall, FLAG (Foreign Links around the Globe), a 32-year-old nonprofit organization, is sending two foreign exchange students to New Milford High School.

FLAG, based in Michigan, works with 400 to 500 high school students each year from across the world, including Europe, Asia and South America.

The path to becoming a foreign exchange student begins long before students’ arrival at the school, according to Angelo Pisano, chapter manager at FLAG. Conversations are started in February of the year prior to the school year they’re starting.

“The students go through a really involved process in their home country before we even receive their application materials,” Pisano said. “Our international partners (organizations similar to FLAG) find the students and interview them for their level of maturity.

Students must also have maintained a C-plus average, have English-language fluency, and provide recommendations from their teachers at their home school.

“We provide materials and perhaps even informational sessions for students and their natural parents to review and attend before departure,” Pisano said.

To select a host school, Pisano said many factors are examined, such profile and size of student body. Those factors are what led Pisano to select New Milford High School.

“We do have a lot of really good success in small- to medium-school districts,” Pisano said. “Those size of schools tend to be a place where our students have an opportunity to shine. They’re able to try out for different sports and get really involved in clubs and activities that enhance their experience.”

Additionally, he makes the decision based on Instagram posts, the schools’ community engagement, and “this gut feeling you get from the images and interactions,” he said.

Each year, New Milford High School receives a packet of information that provides information about the foreign exchange student and their host family, according to Shugrue.

Once they arrive at the school, “They talk to us about their interests. They meet with a guidance counselor and we pick their schedule that suits their interests and their level of challenge,” Shugrue said. “They are able to participate in all the extracurricular offerings that we offer — whether that’s in our band program, whether that’s on the athletic field, whatever that might be. They are considered a full student at New Milford High School.”

A local coordinator visits the host’s home and matches the student with a family whose lifestyle is similar, according to Pisano. Host families and support staff all go through a criminal background check and must provide community references.

In regard to costs, the host family is responsible for the cost of transportation to and from school, providing three meals a day, and a bed and a space to sleep every night.

Once the student is living with the host family, a local coordinator touches base on a monthly basis with the student and family.

“We provide our local coordinator a vast amount of material to train them on supporting young people and young people going through culture shock. They will provide strategies to work with a student who might be experiencing homesickness,” he said. “The families are trained on tips to help the student with those feelings.”

Suggestions to get through homesickness include limiting all contact with home to one hour per week.

“We expect the student will get involved in their new families and new community, and start to feel at home here,” Pisano said.

According to Pisano, one of the biggest benefits to a host family is they’re able to relive and revive family traditions that they might not even have realized had value — “such as an Easter egg hunt, taking a fall hiking vacation, and digging back on things you feel root your experience as an American — whatever that means for the family,” he said.

Shugrue said the experience is a win-win for both the foreign exchange students and the local students.

“It’s beneficial from a student coming from a foreign country to experience an American high school and all that we offer and how it differs from their home country,” Shugrue said. “It’s important for our students to experience a level of diversity and get greater cultural awareness from other students from around the globe.”

sfox@milfordmirror.com