Volga woman hosts six exchanges

Exchange student Kamilla Bonnesen, left, attended a Vikings football game with her host mom Lori Coonfare, Volga.


By Kim Hurley

Volga Correspondent


Whenever ASSE is mentioned, Lori Coonfare’s eyes sparkle, her smile widens, and her personality becomes even more bubbly. ASSE stands for American Scandinavian Student Exchange. It was established by the Swedish government in 1976 to provide student exchanges between the United States and Sweden. However, over the years, ASSE has expanded in size and scope to provide student exchanges among not only the US and Sweden; but 58 other countries as well.

Lori, a resident of Volga, learned of the ASSE program in the spring of 2004 when her daughter, Emily, was a junior at Central Community High School.  One of Emily’s teachers commented to her that she would make a good role model and inquired if her family would ever consider hosting an exchange student. “Well, after much thought,” Lori recalls, “it was agreed that we would host.” Since then, she has not only hosted six exchange students, but she is now the ASSE representative for Clayton County.

There is a common misconception that student exchange programs entail exchanging a student from the US for a student from another country. However, the foreign students who apply for the ASSE program have the goal of coming to America and learning our culture. “If you had the opportunity to read letters from students,” Lori shares, “you would find that coming here is like a dream for them.”

This past year, there were over 40,000 students who applied for the ASSE. Of these thousands of students who represent all 60 countries, only 300 are accepted into the program.  Students, themselves, can pay for the expenses incurred as an exchange student. However, the US Department of State, which administers the ASSE, has established the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) and Youth Exchange Students (YES) scholarship programs for which students from abroad can apply to help finance their expenses of traveling to and from the US. as well as any expenses they incur during their stay. The State Department has also set up the Outbound scholarship program for American students who wish to travel abroad, but need financial assistance.

Lori points out, “If a student is in one of the scholarship programs, then that means they worked hard to get here.” This is evident by the fact that the student is required to pass three rounds of oral and written exams given by both their country and the U.S. Further proof of how highly competitive these scholarship programs are can be seen in the fact that of the 1,000 applicants vying for a scholarship, only 70 were awarded with one this past year.

ASSE applicants, who are not contesting for a scholarship, must show proof of good grades and have knowledge of English. No ASSE applicant, non-scholarship nor those seeking a scholarship, is accepted into the U.S. until his/her application and other information is reviewed four times by the State Department.

The FLEX program was started in 1993 following the fall of the Soviet Union. Lori explains its dual purpose: To assist students (future leaders) from other countries to come to the U.S. and witness that Americans are not the bad people as their governments may make us out to be. At the same time, the exchange students help Americans see that people from other countries are not bad people either, as our government may portray them. Lori gives the example of Zhibek, who currently lives with a family by St. Olaf and who came to this country thinking Americans hate Muslims. Zhibek, who is Muslim, was surprised to find out that this is not the case, as she has been treated with utmost respect. Hence, she loves it here, is very grateful for the opportunity to come here, and has a whole different view of Americans.

ASSE students who come to the U.S. from abroad usually stay with their host family for 10 months. However, it can be for different durations. The first ASSE student Lori hosted stayed only three months. There are responsibilities and rewards for all parties involved: The student, the host family, and the school.

Responsibilities that an ASSE student is expected to fulfill, include having their own insurance, following the host family’s rules, maintaining good grades, being courteous to everyone, and not borrowing money at any time from the host family.

Providing meals (the student pays for his/her own school lunches), a place to sleep and study, and the experience of living with an American family are some of a host family’s responsibilities. The family is also required to treat the ASSE student as a family member rather than as a guest. The student needs to be included in the family’s rules. Lori emphasizes that the student needs to be treated as a son or daughter for the duration of his/her stay.

The school provides a quality education in a welcoming environment. Actually, the rewards of an ASSE exchange are the same for all three parties. They learn different cultures, religions, customs, and practices. Thus, they enrich one another’s lives and grow in their appreciation of diversity.

Lori’s awareness of and appreciation for every individuals’ basic human gifts and qualities has grown as well. She can recall such attributes of each of the students her family has hosted. For instance, Svenja who lives in the Black Forest area of Germany was kind, courteous and helpful. However, she didn’t like Lori’s indoor cats. Lori giggles as she remembers when one of her cats jumped on Svenja’s lap, Svenja told Lori to take a picture because her family wouldn’t have believed it.

Charlotte came to Volga from a city in France that has a population of 520,000. She would sit with Lori at the kitchen table every morning before school and they would talk about anything and everything. Lori was grateful that Charlotte had such a bubbly and goofy personality because she was often perceived as a snob in her own country due to her dad being a well-respected businessman.  

Lori recollects that Francesca, from Italy, was shy when came to Volga. When Lori started commenting that Francesco was so pretty and smart, Francesca shared that no one had ever told her that. “That broke my heart,” admits Lori.  According to Lori, Francesca never liked her picture taken, “but by the time she left, she loved having it taken.”

Lori describes Claudia, from Eastern Germany, as adventurous. “One time when a possum ended up in a bucket on my back porch, Claudia’s response was ‘Can I touch it?’” Lori suggested that wouldn’t be a good idea.  

“Quiet,” is how Lori describes Carolin who lives near the Blue Danube River in Germany. “You would never know she was in the house,” Lori said. Carolin loved to read.  “She would help me with anything,” Lori recalls, “but then she would go back to reading.”

Kamilla, from Denmark, had red hair, wore 6-inch plus high heels and an intellectual sophistication that made her look and act older than 17.  All of Lori’s exchange students filled their after-school hours with such extracurricular activities as school plays, the debate team, and speech. Most of them were particularly eager to participate in sports and cheerleading, Lori explains, “because they aren’t given those options in their own countries.”

Lori filled her students’ leisure hours by taking them around Iowa so they could experience what the state has to offer. She admits that she, herself, was surprised to discover how much there is to do even in Northeast Iowa. Lori isn’t currently hosting any exchange students, because she wants to focus on being an area representative for the ASSE program. She covers not only Clayton County but an area with a 120-mile radius. Lori is representing three students this year: One girl who attends Central, one girl who attends Postville High School, and one girl who attends Belle Plaine High School. 

In order to be an area representative, Lori must meet with the ASSE regional coordinator every fall to learn new rules, regulations, and procedures as well as to discuss any issues. She is also required annually to do an online training through the U.S. Department of State. This past March, Lori attended a specialized training in St. Augustine, FL to become an ASSE/WH FLEX and Yes Area Representative Specialist.

As an area representative for ASSE, Lori has the responsibilities of recruiting families to host exchange students; orienting host families to rules and regulation prior to the student’s arrival; meeting privately with the student two weeks after their arrival to discuss rules, regulations, and expectations; and being available any time to the student and host family to address with questions or concerns. She is seeking families sincerely committed to hosting exchange students by opening up their homes; sharing their daily life; and fostering the students’ learning of new cultures, lifestyles, language, education, and much more.  As you can see from Lori’s experiences, the rewards are endless!

If you have questions or if you are interested in becoming an ASSE host family, Lori Coonfare can be contacted at 99 Buchanan Street, Volga, IA 52077; lcoonfare@hotmail.com; 563-767-4154 (home phone); or 563-422-0063 (cell phone).

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