GEORGETOWN TOWNSHIP, Mich. — From trips to Lake Michigan, to a walk along the Blue Bridge in downtown Grand Rapids, Janne Wiehage is doing everything she wanted to be doing two years ago during her International Experience trip. Believe it or not, that includes a trip to the drive-thru.
"There's no Taco Bell in Germany, and for whatever reason, all the exchange kids love Taco Bell. So anyone we've had come back to visit always asks to go to Taco Bell," said Janne's host mother Sarah Boucher.
In early 2020, Janne was getting over the culture shock of living in a different country. As a sophomore at Jenison High School, she had just gotten used to the differences between the American and German school structures, and how much school spirit American schools have.
Then in March, the whole world changed.
"We were looking every day in class at the news, but we didn't think about it like a big crisis, because this never happened in our lives before, and then it just got bigger and bigger," Wiehage said of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"On a Thursday, they said school is off for five weeks now. Friday, March 13 was my last school day. But I didn't even know it yet."
Three months prior to her scheduled departure, Wiehage had to go back home.
"We have to get you on a plane before the borders to Germany might close, or before the airlines shutdown. Not exactly the ending and closure that we were all looking for," Boucher said, recalling the rush to take action.
Sadness and heartbreak are some of the words Wiehage and her host family use to describe the way her first trip to the United States ended. They knew they couldn't leave it that way.
"Her parents and all of us talked. We'll make this work for her to come back. Her time was cut short," Boucher said.
More than two years after Wiehage said goodbye, she is spending three weeks with her host family. She views it not as the ending she was supposed to get to her first trip, but as a continuation of a lifelong bond. Both she and her host family are grateful that International Experience gave them the opportunity to meet.
"After hosting nine kids now, I've really learned that, as a family, we get just as much out of it, too. I mean, we have kids all across the globe now, and our family has learned so much about traditions. We've grown as a family," Boucher said.
Right now, about 80 children are looking to come to the U.S. as exchange students through International Experience. But they need host families to make that happen. You can sign up on the organization's website.
"It's a pretty simple process. There's an online application. The adults complete online background checks. It only takes about five minutes to fill out," said Boucher who also serves as a local coordinator for International Experience.
Wiehage hopes both students and potential host families give the exchange program a try.
"Do it. It's worth it. And now I have a second family," she said.
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