Foreign-exchange students talk about their journey to RR

From left, Emmeline Peeters, a foreign-exchange student from Belgium who attended Rio Rancho High School; CJ McLaughlin, a junior from New Zealand who attended Cleveland High School; and Yeonjin Sung, a foreign-exchange student from China who attended Rio Rancho High School, pose inside Loma Colorado Main Library. Photo by Stephen Montoya.

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Imagine leaving the comfort of your home, saying good-bye to your friends, family and societal norms, in exchange for a chance to study in a foreign country for several months.

This is exactly what three foreign-exchange students who walked the halls of Rio Rancho and Cleveland high schools did this last year.

“After living here for almost a year, I plan on continuing my education in the U.S.,” said Yeonjin Sung, a student from China.

Originally from South Korea, Sung said she was excited when she found the opportunity to study in the U.S.

“I have already lived in two different countries and liked the idea of traveling to another one,” she said.

Sung, a junior who attended RRHS, said she wrote each member of her host family a letter as a way of breaking the ice before she arrived.

“It was nice, and in a way, I think they appreciated that I took the time to write each one of them personally,” Sung said. “It really helped us bond.”

Besides the Southwestern cuisine, Sung said she had to get used to the openness of Rio Rancho.

“Where I’m from, there are a lot of tall buildings and people everywhere,” she said. “Here it’s so suburban and dry, but I like it because of how close everyone is with the surrounding nature.”

Sung said she had to get used to different cultural norms as well.

“I remember taking my shoes off at the door as soon as I walked into my host family’s house and they were like, ‘It’s OK, you can wear your shoes on the carpet,” she said. “It’s the little things like that that stuck out for me when I first got here.”

Emmeline Peeters, a student from Belgium who also attended RRHS as a junior, said she always wanted to study abroad and was excited when she found out she could do it as a high school student.

“I went on vacation and met some people from other countries that went to America as a foreign-exchange student and did some research on how I could join,” Peeters said.

Soon, she was booking a flight to New York and ended up in Rio Rancho a short time later.

“I didn’t really know much about New Mexico, besides that it was a desert,” she said. “Now that I am here, I have to say it is beautiful. I like the mountains, and I love the food.”

Peeters pointed out how much the school system in the U.S. is different from where she attends school in Belgium.

“Here, I choose my own subjects, and we have different people in each class,” she said. “Back home in Belgium, we choose a subject and stay with it and the same class with the same students all year.”

CJ McLaughlin, a junior from New Zealand who attended CHS, said she had some trouble adapting to the altitude after she got off the plane in Albuquerque.

“When I got off the plane, I was excited and began to run to meet up with my sponsor, and then I realized I was having a hard time breathing,” McLaughlin said. “It felt like I wasn’t taking in any air. So, yeah, the altitude really hit me right away.”

Another thing she noticed was how much school spirit students had when she began attending CHS in January.

“It’s cool that you can get involved with whatever extracurricular activity you want,” McLaughlin said. “There are so many choices, and I’m not going to get into it, but it’s way different than where I go to school in New Zealand.”

For now, none of the girls have concrete plans for the future but have come to the consensus that their trip to Rio Rancho and the U.S. has broadened their sense of the world.

“We meet up sometimes and have coffee and try to stay in touch,” McLaughlin said. “Besides our host families, we kind of have each other to talk to and I plan on staying in touch with everyone as time goes on.”

Cindy Parker, exchange program coordinator, said she finds host parents for foreign-exchange students at churches, schools and the occasional sporting event.

“We are always looking for host parents,” Parker said. “The process is really just showing interest in doing it.”

She said she does a home visit and a criminal background check, and looks through references before green-lighting a family to host a student.

“My rule of thumb is if I wouldn’t put my own child with the family, then I wouldn’t place a child there,” Parker said. “We really want to give a student a good experience, and if and when an unforeseen event happens with a host family, I can take care of placing that student elsewhere.”

She said she also looks at the interests of the host family and student to see if they are a good match.

Sung said it didn’t take long to acclimate to her host family and feel welcomed and at home with them.

“Of course, I get a little homesick, but my host family has been good to me and we have made a connection,” she said.

For more information on being host family, email or call Parker at 977-5494.