Christina Henry, Kitsap Sun
image from Aspect Foundation homepage
BREMERTON — Leon Breidenbach, of Hamburg, Germany, had never played American football when he enrolled this fall at Bremerton High School.
That didn't stop the 17-year-old foreign exchange student from throwing himself wholeheartedly into the game.
"Football was a new experience for me," Breidenbach said. "I didn't know any of the rules or anything."
The year has been full of firsts and new experiences for Breidenbach — including trips with his host family to Portland and Canada. That's just what he was hoping.
"You make international friends. You get to know a new culture. Another reason is that it looks good when you have an application for jobs later," Breidenbach said of being an exchange student.
As Breidenbach's year abroad comes to a close, a new crop of exchange students is preparing to arrive for the 2016-17 school year, and organizations working with the U.S. Department of State are seeking host families.
Breidenbach found his host family through the Aspect Foundation, represented in Kitsap County by Jodi Moore, of Port Orchard. Moore and husband Richard have hosted a number of students, and Moore since 2004 has matched students with families for the San Francisco-based agency.
This year she's noticed something different.
A church that Moore has used in the past to connect with prospective families declined to help when Moore mentioned that some students would be coming from countries with significant Muslim populations.
Aspect this year is participating in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, one of many administered by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The YES program was established by Congress in 2002 in response to events of Sept. 11, 2001. Like other cultural exchange programs, YES is intended to break down cultural barriers and promote good will among people of different countries.
"For Americans, exchange programs are a great opportunity for the world to come to them, to give them an insider's perspective on places that they perhaps have never before thought about visiting," said Nathan Arnold, spokesman for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The State Department also administers programs that place American students abroad.
YES provides scholarships to students through a highly competitive program. Only about 4 percent of those who apply are chosen. Scholarships are open to students of all faiths and backgrounds from more than 30 countries. Students are thoroughly screened during the visa process, Moore said.
YES students commit to do community service while living and studying in America. Some make presentations to fellow students and community groups.
"They're the cream of the crop," said Eileen O'Neill, Aspect's operations director. "They're very bright. They're very outgoing. They come here fully prepared to have a full cultural exchange."
And yet, Moore ran into resistance. Some prospective families she called cited terrorist attacks in Europe within the past six months.
"You get, 'Well, didn't you hear about the attack in France? About the attack in Belgium?" Moore said. "I think it's because people are afraid from all the terrorist attacks, but we can't be afraid. We cannot live in a shell."
Arnold said exchange programs are meant to make inroads against these types of fears.
An April 3 article posted on the State Department website from a Winona, Minnesota, publication describes how a Pakistani YES student, who is Muslim, overcame his assumptions and fears about Americans and won over doubters in his host town.
"With more than 55,000 people participating in State Department-sponsored exchanges each year, we do, on occasion, hear about a small minority of people in U.S. host communities who have concerns about foreigners staying in their communities," Arnold said. "However, once these participants arrive on their exchange programs and become part of the community, we hear even more stories about how people-to-people exchanges are improving understanding of different cultures and viewpoints."
O'Neill said her agency's ability to find host families waxes and wanes, depending on the economy and current events.
"It's always a challenge when things like that are in the news," O'Neill said. "That's the purpose of these programs is to have a people-to-people exchange. It's a public diplomacy program. Once these students are in the community, people see them in a different light."
Moore has been successful in finding host families for more than a dozen students in the upcoming school year, and she is looking for more families. Prospective families must pass a background check and be willing to provide a room, which can be shared with a child of the same sex, along with food and transportation.
Beyond that, Moore said, host families should have a true interest in the cultural give and take that in the vast majority of cases enriches both student and host family.
"My host family's awesome. They do so many things with me," Breidenbach said.
"He's just been amazing. So much fun," host mom Nickie Crumb said.
If some people worry about the integrity of incoming students, the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students says it's the behavior of host families that needs greater scrutiny. Citing periodic items in the news about abuse or neglect of students at the hands of their hosts, the organization calls for tighter controls over screening of host families. News items cited involve multiple placement agencies.
The Aspect Foundation in 2009 was implicated in the case of five students who were placed in squalid homes in Pennsylvania and not given adequate food. The coordinator who matched the students with families pleaded guilty in 2010 to collecting money on the placements using fraudulent paperwork. She no longer works for Aspect.
O'Neill provided the Kitsap Sun with a letter from the State Department certifying Aspect's endorsement as an exchange student sponsor program. O'Neill said she couldn't speak to the 2009 incident and issued this statement, "Aspect Foundation's host family screening and student monitoring procedures exceed federal requirements in order to ensure the safety and welfare of foreign exchange students."