Rotary Club's Youth Exchange Program brings international students to AHS

Mar. 27—ANDERSON — The idea of traveling more than 8,000 miles to spend her final year of high school in the United States didn't initially appeal to Nadeen Jaroonpentanat.

"I was really afraid because I wondered, when I came here and I didn't know who I was going to meet, how it would go," the 17-year-old Anderson High School senior said. "But the people here are really nice. It's been nicer than the stereotypes that some people have."

Jaroonpentanat arrived in Anderson late last July as the 10th international student in the Anderson Rotary Club's Rotary Youth Exchange Program. She grew up in Loei, Thailand, a town of about 21,000 located in the northern part of the country, an eight-hour drive from Bangkok.

The younger of two children, Jaroonpentanat heard stories from her older sister about her experiences in the United States as a Rotary Exchange student several years ago.

"She told me the U.S. is really cool, and that I should come if I got the chance," she said. "My dad told me that, too. They said I could learn a whole new culture and learn a lot of other things."

The local Rotary chapter has been involved with the exchange program since 2011, placing teens with host families for a full academic year and providing opportunities for them to immerse themselves in American culture and family life.

"We feel like it's important to bridge cultures together, especially where people share so many common values," said Debbie Webb, the Rotary Club's youth exchange officer. "They come over here and they learn that America's a lot different from what their expectations were."

Jaroonpentanat is staying with three different host families during her time in Anderson. She spent four months with the Short family, with whom she quickly developed a close relationship, including acting as a de facto "big sister" to their daughter, Mary Kate, a freshman at Anderson High School.

"Having another person coming into the high school with me, I really liked the idea," Mary Kate said. "I'm a freshman, and it's my first year, I was really nervous, so it was nice having another person to go through it with."

Mary Kate's parents, Colin and Julie Short, had occasionally discussed seeking out an opportunity to host a foreign exchange student. Colin recalled that he became close friends with an exchange student during his time at Anderson High School, and "in the back of my mind, I always thought that would be a cool thing, to host someone."

The Shorts chose to wait until Mary Kate was ready to enter high school — "we felt like the ages might match up a little better," Colin said — and, when Webb contacted them last summer, they decided the time was right.

The local Rotary chapter, Julie said, "does a great job of really finding great students that are here for all the good reasons.

"They want to learn about your culture, they want to be involved in your family, they want to be involved in the school and the community," she said. "We feel so fortunate that we have Nadeen with us because it was just like a perfect match right from the get-go."

Jaroonpentanat quickly assimilated into the student population at AHS. A member of the school's newly formed dance team, she counts attending basketball games and hanging out with her friends among her favorite activities.

"I had my own dance team at school in Thailand," Jaroonpentanat said. "I started (dancing) in seventh grade. "I wanted to do some activity at school, so there was the dance team and I did the tryout, and it came out really well. It's really fun."

The arrangement, Colin said, has been invaluable to his family as well, introducing them to new customs and different perspectives Jaroonpentanat holds on a variety of topics.

"She's taught us about Thai culture, and it's so impressive because it has a lot to do with being respectful, really appreciating family and your community," Colin said. "I think we've all realized, hey, I can learn from Nadeen on a lot of these things."

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