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Forever Changed: a Local Coordinator Shares her Journey from Exchange Student to Mentor

November 21, 2014

By Jillian Sims; Academic Year Compliance and Operations Manager

Julie and her students pose for a photo at the CSIET conference with CCI Greenheart CEO, Laura Rose, and other Chicago Office Staff

Julie and her students pose for a photo at the CSIET conference with CCI Greenheart CEO, Laura Rose, and other Chicago Office Staff

Meet Julie Zehner, Local Coordinator in Illinois. Julie has worked with CCI Greenheart in both the Short Term programs, Homestay, and J1 Visa High School Programs.As a former exchange student herself, she shares her love of Thailand, cultural exchange, and working with students around the world.


Why did you decide to become a Local Coordinator with CCI Greenheart?

I decided to get more involved with student exchange after we hosted our first student, Prim from Thailand. I decided to place students since it seemed I wanted to host them all!

I went on to host 4 more students in our home, as well as placing over 20 more with other families. As a teenager, my family hosted Annabelle from Costa Rica. She returned and stood up in my wedding and we spent our honeymoon visiting her country. I also was an exchange student in Thailand.

What moment has made you laugh the most since Zoe and Aom have arrived?

We were sitting at the HS football game talking about eating “stinky Tofu” in Taiwan, and how delicious the bugs are in Thailand. Aom told us we should give them a try! “They are good,” she promised.

After the CSIET student panel, Julie (upper left) and her students join Chicago Office Staff at a Milauakee Pizza Joint.

After the CSIET student panel, Julie (upper left) and her students join Chicago Office Staff at a Milwaukee Pizza Joint.

After participating on the student panel at CSIET in Milwaukee, Julie and her students joined Chicago Office Staff members at a local pizza joint. Here, Aoym enjoys her first mozzarella cheese stick.

Aom enjoys her first mozzarella cheese stick. Fellow exchange student, Zoe from Taiwan, joins in the Wisconsin dining experience

What moment made you realize the larger impact of what you’re doing as an LC ?

I do not have one particular moment; however, I can say that this summer my daughter, husband and I went to Thailand to visit 14 past students that we either hosted, placed, or had visited us when we were hosting over winter break. All of those students took time out of their life, to spend as much time with us while we were there. They took us to different places, dinner, and just spent time visiting us.

It was very clear that we impacted those students when they were here in the USA. I think that since I have been involved in student exchange since High school, I understand and know what an impact student exchange has had in my life. I am still very good friends with my “sister” from Costa Rica and my Thai family.

Julie Zehner 2

Julie’s daughter Mackenzie and her friend with 3 exchange students enjoying Halloween fun!


What do you do when you’re not placing exchange students?

Aom enjoys pumpkin carving at a get together for students.

Aom enjoys pumpkin carving at a get together for students.

I work full time as a preschool director/ teacher. I love being a mom, and am very involved with my children and family. I have been working with children since college and enjoy being involved with them. I also try to see my students as often as possible, whether we go to school events, hang out to just watch movies, or plan activities so the students can get together in groups.


What have you learned/what is a tip for other LCs?

Remember the big picture: that the students are from different cultures, and family lifestyles. They are still learning too and they are a long way from home, so be sensitive to the students, but make sure you are guiding them with clear expectations. You might just be the person that makes the difference in their exchange experience.

I also think that having a “buddy” LC really makes a difference because you can ask for advice, share stories and you have the support of someone doing what you are doing. Students need support and sometimes LCs do too!

You spent time as an exchange student in Thailand yourself. How has that experience affected your work in cultural exchange as an LC?

It has helped to make me who I am. I feel that since I did what they are doing as well, I can relate to them. I feel that I can advise them based off of my experience and not just what they are supposed to do or feel.

How was the experience of attending part of the CSIET conference and seeing your students speak on the student panel?

I felt very proud to be there with the girls. They are a lot of fun. It was nice to spend time with them going over the questions and hearing what they were going to say.

Thai student, Aoym, participating in the student panel, discusses her love of food, particularly, her daily dose of cheese and chocolate!

Thai student, Aoym, participating in the student panel, discusses her love of food, particularly, her daily dose of cheese and chocolate!

Interested in becoming a Local Coordinator yourself? Click here to learn how to begin your journey in cultural exchange!


Creating a Cultural Home: Life and Hosting in Exchange

November 19, 2014

By Jillian Sims; Academic Year Program Compliance and Operations Manager

Mary Armstrong and her daughters Esther, Katherine,  Nayera (from Israel) and Trustee (from Ghana) at the Minnehaha Falls (Minneapolis, MN)

Mary Armstrong and her daughters Esther, Katherine, Nayera (from Israel) and Trustee (from Ghana) at the Minnehaha Falls (Minneapolis, MN)

Mary Armstrong is a Regional Director with CCI Greenheart in Minnesota, working with many Local Coordinators, host families, and students in the “Frozen North,” as she affectionately refers to the states she oversees (MT, ND, SD, WY, NE, and MN). Mary first started her journey in cultural exchange many years ago in 1976 when her family first hosted a student and, later, she herself was an exchange student in France. Years later, a friend who was hosting asked her if she would like to be a host parent as well. That turned into becoming a Local Coordinator, and then Regional Manager, until ultimately reaching the position of Regional Director and working with CCI Greenheart in 2012. All in all, she has had more than 10 years of experience working in the world of cultural exchange, has hosted personally more than 15 students, and has worked with hundreds of host families, students, and LCs. It’s fair to say, she’s rather well versed in the language of cultural exchange.

Host dad, Bob, goes for a hike with his daughter and students

Host dad, Bob, goes for a hike with his daughter and students

For Mary, hosting students is a family affair. Her children are also huge advocates for the experience and are involved in choosing the student that will become a family member for the year. Her family is especially fond of hosting scholarship students through the FLEX and YES programs, and this year was no exception, though it was a bit of a different family dynamic.

Her two eldest children are now out of the home, in college and studying abroad, but her youngest, Esther, wasn’t about to let the opportunity to host pass. ” I don’t want to be by myself this year!” she told her mother.

With aspirations of her own for world travel from growing up amongst exchange students, Esther is a fan of her family’s tradition. Mary says of hosting “We feel like hosting an exchange student serves to provide the opportunity to an exchange student to make a positive impression on our local community where their diversity really adds a new element into the mix. It certainly has impacted our lives as we learn about new cultures, discuss world politics and become world travelers – all while staying home and nurturing our family.”

Every year,the family tries to pick a culture that they are unfamiliar with and this year they have chosen students from Ghana (Trustee) and from Israel (Nayera). Mary says that both students are quite different from each other, but equally special. Nayera is “outgoing and active” and regularly shares with her family about the intricacies of being an Arab in Israel, while speaking passionately about the challenges her country faces and how government policies do not indicate how her countrymen and women interact on a daily basis.”Nayera is a great student ambassador representing her country, and we surely hope her country takes some of her advice to be open-minded and welcoming.”

Nayara was also invited to speak at the CSIET conference on a student panel. When asked to speak about her greatest challenge, described her pride in being able to speak with her family about a cultural misunderstanding regarding her country’s flag and her personal identity. Mary and her family had unwittingly put a picture of the Israeli flag on Nayera’s welcome sign. Because this is not the image Nayera or her family identify with, she explained this to her new family and they together came to a better understanding and embraced Nayera and the Palestinian scarf that better represents her. Mary says “I’ll wear my Palestinian scarf knowing it came from my Israeli daughter!”

In the meanwhile, Trustee “bubbles with curiosity” at the new world around her. She recently put together a presentation for her school sharing her culture and proudly displayed her family school, culture, background and Ghanian dress. “Her eagerness to absorb everything has really impacted us and inspired us to share. One Sunday, we dedicated most of the day to researching her country and working on her country presentation which was really a special mom-daughter bonding time,” Mary recalls.

The girls enjoying the falls.

The girls enjoying the falls.

And it seems that this family already has many good memories together. Some days it is a “learn to sew” day that Mary put together when her girls expressed interest. There have also been trips to a rather freezing Lake Superior where the girls marveled at a road side sign that had marked where 300 inches of snow once lay. Both girls having never seen snow, so this was rather amazing to them.

They are so eager to see that miraculous “white stuff” that one morning Trustee was  heard screaming “It snowed, it snowed!” only for it to be discovered that Minnesota had simply gotten its first frost. “Later comes the real snow!” Mary promised.

As a Regional Director, Mary and her family have perhaps more experience than most with cultural exchange, and she credits her husband’s great patience and love of the experience that the many years have brought. With all of this experience comes knowledge, and Mary encourages being open minded and being able to laugh over the differences. “Some of the best advice I can give to prospective host families is a reminder that teenagers make mistakes and do unpredictable things, so be prepared for an adventure if you decide to host. I feel like it’s so important to use the opportunity of hosting an exchange student to learn from each other. … To be able to share is a gift that should be treasured and encouraged. ” With all of these years of hosting and living and working in the world of exchange, Mary and her family now enjoy regular invitations to graduations, weddings, etc. They are even “grandparents” to one of their early Kyrgyzstaian daughter’s two boys. Not too bad for nearly 40 years in cultural exchange!

Interested in opening your door to a life of exchange, learning, laughter, and fun? Consider hosting an exchange student! Click here to learn more about how to host with CCI Greenheart!


When It Comes to Having Fun, I Know How to Do It!

November 15, 2014

By: Marta Odainic, Work and Travel Summer 2014 Ambassador Scholar

Marta was a Work and Travel participant from Moldova who is very passionate for programs focused on helping those infected with HIV/AIDS and preventive teaching for teenagers. During her program, she loves the city of Chicago, as it speaks to every part of her heart, which you can learn about in this blog post and her previous one here

There are a million places to visit and a million things to do in Chicago. Seriously, a million. That’s why I tried not to miss a thing, so I could say that I did my best to get to know this city as much as possible.


From the towering skyscrapers of the Loop, to the colorful mosaic of neighborhoods that make up the city, Chicago is beautiful in the summer and buzzes with energy and excitement all season long.

The city offered me hundreds of opportunities each day. That’s why after having spent almost 3 months in Chicago, I tried looking at it as a tourist.

I totally enjoyed the great outdoors with a Chicago Architecture Foundation river boat tour. Also, I walked a lot to places such as Millennium Park, Lincoln Park Zoo, Oak Street Beach, Water Tower Place, Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Navy Pier, Wrigley Field, and many other places.


I realized that summer is ripe for arts and culture as well. I discovered gallery districts and caught museum exhibits like “Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo” at the Museum of Contemporary Art. At the heart of the exhibition, I saw two of Kahlo’s rare self-portraits: “Tree of Hope,” and “Little Deer.” The rest of the show is devoted to a little more than 30 works, most created in the past 25 years, by artists from around the world who were not necessarily influenced by Kahlo directly, but who share a similar spirit of rebellion and take on issues. I must say, it was such a source of happiness for me, as Frida is one of my favorite contemporary artists. It’s a pity I cannot share pictures with you, as it wasn’t allowed to take photos at this exhibition.

The Field Museum was incredible. It had an amazing collection of fossils unlike any other museum. Apparently, “Sue” is the largest intact T. Rex skeleton ever found. This museum also has some fantastically well preserved stuffed animal specimens (including 3 infamous man-eating lions from Africa that inspired “The Ghost and the Darkness”). They also have an incredibly diverse collection of artisans, and crafts, and, including an entire 2000 BC boat of pharaohs Senusrert III and many mummies. I truly believe that this museum is a real highlight of Chicago.

One of my American friends told me that no trip to Chicago is complete without a visit to the top of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and, the Ledge at Skydeck Chicago. So, I decided to do that! I got to the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower, just to stand out on the ledge. The glass balconies extended 4.3 feet outside the building! It looked simple until it was my turn to step onto the ledge. My instincts were alerted; my stomach got queasy, but I did it. It was almost like a thrill ride. Good therapy for those like myself who are afraid of heights.

Chicago has something for every piece of my heart: music, art, sport, cinema, amazing people, and lots of opportunities.


Career Advancement Program Explores Community and Culture

November 14, 2014

By Melissa Muth, Career Advancement Program Assistant

Cultural immersion is an amazing and important aspect of the J-1 Intern and Trainee program. The United States is a country with a wide array of cultural opportunities. Each region of the U.S. varies in landscape, culture, and history, creating unique experiences for residents and visitors alike!

Career Advancement Program Interns and Trainees have enjoyed a wide array of cultural immersion experiences during their time in the U.S.

City Tours. One of the ways in which interns get to know their city is through city tours. Cities- big and small- all over the U.S. have a wide array of tours

Miami, Florida

Miami, Florida

for visitors.

CAP Intern Karys went on an open bus top tour of Miami, Florida and was able to see the back streets of the city. She describes the experience as an “eye opener.”

Intern Talde did a trolley tour of Savannah, Georgia to better acquaint herself with a famous historical city of the South.

Sports. Sports culture is huge in the United States. Many Interns and Trainees take in local soccer, baseball, hockey, or football games in their free time.

CAP Intern Ian attended the recent USA vs. Honduras soccer game at the Florida Atlantic University Stadium.

CAP Intern Chen really enjoyed his first baseball game at the famous Yankee Stadium in New York City- the largest city in the U.S.!

Pumpkin festival

Pumpkin festival

Events and Festivals. The U.S. is home to many diverse cultures!  As a result, CAP Interns and Trainees experience many different events and festivals.

CAP Intern Charlotte was able to attend a Latin music festival with her coworkers in Orlando, Florida. CAP Intern Thomas attended a Halloween “horror night” in the same city and even had the opportunity to see how American attractions function!

Life as an American Teen: Elisa from Brazil Finds Full Immersion in the F-1 Program

November 13, 2014

By Sarah Tolman, F-1 High School Program Coordinator

Though she’s only been in the United States for a few months, it has not taken long for Elisa to adjust to life as an American teenager. That was her goal, after all, when she applied for the F-1 High School Academic Program in the U.S.

                “I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to live in a different country, live as a teenager…an American teenager!”

The experience so far has lived up to her expectations. Elisa was placed with a great host family in the small East Coast town of Groton, Massachusetts. This is a pretty stark contrast compared to her home of 11 million inhabitants, São Paolo in Brazil. Elisa says she still prefers living in big cities but that she has loved the experience of living in a small town so far. Less chaos, beautiful changing leaves (which doesn’t happen at all in Brazil), and she’s only an hour away from the historic city of Boston. Elisa is soaking up the New England fall in the best way possible. For Halloween, she carved pumpkins with her host family, dressed up as a cat and went to a Halloween dance with her host sister (who is also in high school). They don’t celebrate Halloween at all in her home country, so this has been a huge highlight for Elisa. And though she’s only staying for one semester, she made sure that her flight home isn’t until January, so that she can experience some great American traditions: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Elisa enjoying the Halloween spirit

Elisa enjoying the Halloween spirit

Elisa’s English level is impressive. She’s been studying English for 6 years now and has learned a lot of her vocabulary from American movies and music. Even with her advanced language level, she acknowledges that it takes a lot of courage to go up to new people and start a conversation in a language that isn’t your native tongue. She’s made that a goal to accomplish while at an American school: to gain confidence when meeting new people and improve her conversational language.

Luckily, she already feels more confident than she did when she first arrived in August. She mentions that it’s easier to meet a wide variety of people at her school here in the U.S. than at her Brazilian school, because of the different class structure:

“[In Brazil] we only have one class and we stay with this class until the end of the year, so I usually don’t interact a lot with people from other classes, so I guess here changing every day, makes me know a lot of people.”

She also noted that at her school in the U.S. (Groton-Dunstable Regional High School), in comparison to her school in Brazil, the students are more enthusiastic about the idea of being a part of a team. Though Elisa didn’t join any sports teams, she did become a member of her school’s art club. One of their activities as a club was painting students’ faces for a Friday night football game. So Elisa has found her own way to be a part of the school spirit, just another step towards immersing herself into the role of an American teen.

Apple picking in Massachusetts

Apple picking in Massachusetts

Though Elisa had visited the U.S. before participating in this program, there were still some aspects of American culture that surprised her, even surpassed her expectations. She knew Americans were friendly, but has been pleasantly surprised by how truly open and interested students at her school are in learning about her home country and culture.

Her time in the U.S. is limited, but Elisa still has many things to look forward to. For one thing, she’s excited to see snow for the first time in her life. Other goals on her to-do list include: more visits to Boston, seeing a Broadway Musical and a trip to six flags with a group of international students. Squeezing in all of these awesome activities into one semester isn’t an easy task, but Elisa is up to the challenge. When she returns to Brazil, she already knows that she will miss her new friends and the American school system. Most of all, she’ll miss her host family and the fact that they are always ready to take her on different outings and partake in different activities together.

The only way to truly experience what it’s like to be a “typical American teenager,” is to be courageous like Elisa and attend high school in America. Apply for our F-1 High School Academic Program today and get ready for your own eye-opening, exciting experience.

“Deep, meaningful friendships that will last a lifetime!”

November 12, 2014

By: Eva Pacheco, Ace Hotel and Swim Club. Work and Travel Employer

Eva Pacheco is an employer from a seasonal community with CCI Greenheart’s Work and Travel program. Through her Journey of a Job Fair Employer, Eva has shared her experiences with the program. Now as her participants have departed, she talks to a coworker about the impact the participants made in the community and business. You can read her previous blogs posts here.

It’s been a bit over a month since our participants returned to Thailand and they are all still very much a part of our daily conversations here at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club.

Our staff have been fantastic about keeping in touch with our participants through social media, free phone apps and video chatting. The participants in Thailand are not only keeping up on what’s happening in music, fashion and current events in the United States, but are still very active in socializing with our staff on a personal level – discussing school, travel & relationships.  Sure, this program has allowed our Thailand participants to sharpen their English language skills and learn about American culture, but what I thought was most unexpected was how despite our differences, we became one small community – helping & supporting one another. There are lots of conversations happening about future plans for our staff to visit our friends in Thailand.

I know I speak for myself and the rest of the staff at the Ace Hotel & Swim club when I say that  we are touched to know that we have developed deep, meaningful friendships that will last a lifetime! Thank you CCI Greenheart for such a wonderful experience!

Participants depart: Exciting and Somber

November 5, 2014

By: Eva Pacheco, Ace Hotel and Swim Club. Work and Travel Employer

Eva Pacheco is an employer from a seasonal community with CCI Greenheart’s Work and Travel program. Having cooperated with CCI Greenheart for several years on her international hiring, Eva was able to travel to Thailand to hire her Spring 2014 participants. Follow Eva on her Employer Journey as she arrives in Thailand. You can read her previous blog post here.

The final week with our participants was both exciting and somber. We could tell that the students were excited to see their families & friends and get back to the lives they left behind 3 months before, but they were also sad to leave their new friends behind.

The hotel hosted a party for everyone to get together and wish our students safe travels.  Each participant received a goodie bag filled with mementos of their time with us as well as hand written cards from all their friends and colleagues so they could all connect on Facebook and other social media outlets. The participants spent their last week in the U.S. traveling to places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and San Francisco. During such an emotional time, we were careful to remind them to give a 30 day notice to the apartment they were living in and a forwarding address for their deposit to be returned to them. The participants were also given their final paychecks before they departed, as it was much easier for them to cash the checks here in the states, using their American bank accounts. We were sure to get their contact information to be able to send them their W-2’s at the end of the year and to keep in touch periodically to let them know that we will never forget them…. and that they will always have friends in Palm Springs!


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