All in the family: International exchange promotes cross cultural experience |

All in the family: International exchange promotes cross cultural experience

Katrina Paz
Special to The Union

Wataru with his host family, the McGees.

The end of the school year is just on the horizon, but Joey McCutchan is already planning for next year and Wataru Ogasawara is trying to avoid thoughts of graduation. Wataru is a senior at Nevada Union High School, only his senior year is unlike that of most Nevada County 17-year olds. Wataru is half a world away from his friends and family, but he's already cultivating his future, and McCutchan and the McGee Family are helping him do it.

Wataru is from Osaka, Japan and is one of 14 international exchange students enrolled at NU this year. He arrived last June through Cultural Homestay International. McCutchan is a teacher coordinator with the organization and helped place Wataru and a handful of other students with families in the Nevada County area. She placed Wataru with the McGee Family for the academic year.

Wataru's decision to study in America for the year is part of his long-term goal for professional success. He would eventually like to run his own company and realizes that knowing a second language, particularly English, would benefit him greatly through life.

"English is such a common language, so I wanted to learn it, so that's why I came here," he said.

“It was nice because both my brothers don’t live here anymore, so it was like having a new brother for a year.”
Brennan McGee

McCutchan runs a four-week Intensive English Program for Japanese students. These students then go on to attend high schools either regionally or nationally, depending on placement. Last year's students were placed with families in the Sacramento area and Seattle, while three, including Wataru, stayed in Nevada County.

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Pat and Michelle McGee are one of many families who are hosting international students. The couple has seven kids, with the two youngest attending NU. Michelle read about McCutchan's program from the Sierra Madres and Padres parent group and thought it would be fun.

It turned out to be a wonderful fit for Wataru, who rides to school every morning with his "brother" Brennan, also a senior and "sister" Molly, a sophomore. The three bicker and banter much like real siblings and share many interests, including sports, video games, and badminton.

"It was nice because both my brothers don't live here anymore, so it was like having a new brother for a year," Brennan said.

McCutchan, a former Spanish teacher, has run the CHI program for four years. She used to coordinate host families when the school would bring students over from Nevada City's sister city in Japan. She stresses that exchange students should be treated just like a member of the family.

"The main thing is for kids to feel cared for and accepted," she said. "They can't feel like a border. Especially with an academic program, the more the student is treated like other members of the family, the more they integrate. If siblings do chores, they should do chores."

Wataru has embraced his new family, cooking for them and doing his own laundry. They in return teach him to cook 'American food,' with grilled cheese becoming an immediate favorite.

In the evenings the family plays games like Scrabble, and takes part in activities that stimulate speaking English and facilitate learning new words. Wataru spoke some English before he arrived, but according to his American parents, it's improved a great deal, and had little effect on his ability to make friends.

"NU is a pretty big school. It's a little difficult to make friends, but it's just what I thought. I made a lot of friends. It's very fun right now," Wataru said.

NU is hosting 14 students this year -three from CHI, and 11 from various other programs, including the local rotary club. In addition to Japan, the students come from Germany, Korea, Brazil, Spain, Czech Republic, Mexico, Italy, Costa Rica, and Chile. They range in age from 15 to 18 and will all take part in graduation ceremonies in June.

Rose Murphy, a guidance counselor who oversees the exchange program, said. "I think it's a good education for everyone. We learn about other cultures."

The campus also has Friends International, a club established to help students get to know the school and the community. Originally established with McCutchan as an advisor several years ago, the club has evolved into a group and forum for students to share cultures.

As far as leaving America in June, Wataru, who has never left Japan before this year, is simply not ready. "I don't want to go home right now. It feels like I could stay longer."

"He's our youngest son," Pat said of Wataru.

The next IEP is from July 18 through Aug. 16. Families need not have children of their own, but must be able to provide transportation (the courses take place at Bitney Springs College Prep). Students will need their own bed, meals, and a place to study.

Informational meetings will be April 8, May 7 and June 10 . For more information, call 265-9195.

Freelance writer Katrina Paz lives in Grass Valley.

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