Year ends early for exchange students

Photos by Kayla Renie/The Herald
Justin Miwa, 16, an exchange student from Japan, right, and his host brother, Sean Roberts, 17, search for Easter baskets using clues hidden in eggs during a scavenger hunt at the Roberts family’s home in Jasper on Friday. With schools closing due to COVID-19, Justin's exchange program is ending early. He had never experienced an Easter egg hunt before, so his host family decided to create a scavenger hunt for him as his last American activity before he flew home to Japan the next day.


The prom dress Norwegian foreign exchange student Tuva Soby bought as soon as she arrived in the U.S. will stay unworn on its hanger.

The spring break day trips Japanese foreign exchange student Justin Miwa planned to take with his Jasper host family, the Robertses, won’t happen.

Italian foreign exchange student Lorenzo Vaiardi, who broke several swimming records at Northeast Dubois this year, won’t get to see how he stacks up against Americans in track and field.

Thanks to COVID-19, the year is not ending as hoped for local foreign exchange students and their families.

“It was a mixed feeling,” Mary Roberts said of her reaction to the news that Justin would leave early. “As a parent, I know how I felt when my son was across the country. I can only imagine how his mom felt with her son out of the country.”

Justin Miwa, 16, an exchange student from Japan, smiles after finding his Easter basket.

Justin returned to Japan over the weekend, but before he left, Mary and her son, Sean, made sure he got to experience one list piece of American culture: a hunt through the house for an Easter basket. It’s a tradition at the Roberts house for Mary to hide the kids’ Easter baskets for them to find on Easter morning. This year, the hunt happened a few weeks early so Justin could be part of it.

Although Justin’s family is Christian, Mary said Easter in Japan is very different from Easter in the U.S. As a country, Japan does not celebrate Easter, so the egg hunts and chocolate bunnies so familiar to Americans were foreign to Justin.

Now that he is back in Japan, Mary said they’ve been keeping in contact over Skype, and she imagines they’ll stay in contact.

“He’s been here for seven months,” Mary said. “He’s become part of the family.”

At Shannon Fuhs’ house, Tuva, too, has become part of the family, and it’ll be difficult to say goodbye when it’s time for Tuva to leave Wednesday. The Fuhs family had hoped to send her off in June with a pool party with all her friends. Now, that won’t happen.

Instead, Shannon put together a video with clips from Tuva’s friends and teachers telling stories from their time with her. Shannon surprised her with the video Monday night.

“She’s had to say goodbye to her friends in a whole different way than we ever expected,” Shannon said.

For Tuva, the worst part of leaving early is missing out on prom, graduation and all the graduation parties that follow. They don’t do any of that in Norway, she said.

She’s also missing out on getting her driver’s license, something she hoped to do in the U.S. because it’s much cheaper to learn to drive in the States than it is in Europe and licenses can transfer with just some paperwork.

Even as COVID-19 spread across the world in the last few months, Tuva said her parents supported her and her decision to stay in the U.S. as long as she could.

“They know I don’t want to leave, and I’m enjoying being here,” she said.

Now, however, Education First — the organization that oversees Tuva’s and many other local foreign exchange students’ time in the U.S. — is sending most of its students home.

Lorenzo is among the students who can still choose to remain in their host country. Italy has been hit hard by COVID-19, so he and his parents decided that for now it would be best for him to remain in the U.S.
“I’m kind of worried [about my family],” he said. “But I know my family will stay home.”

The decision to stay was a joint decision between Lorenzo, his parents in Italy and his host family, the Roaches. It was a difficult decision, Lorenzo said, because it does come with some risks. First, he had to make sure the health insurance he purchased for his time in the U.S. would cover his treatment if he catches COVID-19 while in the U.S. In Italy, that wouldn’t be a concern as the state covers medical care, he said.

Another risk is the dwindling travel options between the U.S. and Europe, especially Italy. Currently, Italy is on lockdown, Lorenzo said, which means people aren’t allowed to leave their homes unless they’re going for essential needs, and there has been talk of the airports closing. If that happens, Lorenzo said, he’ll be stranded in the U.S. He’s optimistic that won’t be the case.

After considering everything, he said staying in the U.S. and finishing out the year seemed like the best choice, so unless something changes, that’s his plan.

For him, the biggest disappointment is not being able to participate in track and field. Sports are everything to him, he said, and while he can still run on the roads around his house here, it’s not what he planned. Also unexpected is going to school via e-learning and losing out on time with his friends.

Even with those disappointments, though, Lorenzo is glad he gets to stay.

“I’m mentally not ready to leave all the people I’ve met here,” he said.

The other exchange students have felt the same way. One thing they all agree on is that they’ll miss the friends they’ve made while in the U.S. and hope to keep in contact.

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