Tribal member and Bruno family descendant Tricia Evans sees both sides of the foreign exchange student program in Oklahoma. She works as a field manager for International Student Exchange Programs, an international nonprofit that fills opportunities between the United States and the rest of the globe, and hosts foreign exchange students herself.
She began working for ICES three years ago; however, the Evans family began hosting before that. Tricia loves children. The Evans previously fostered and adopted, and she thought building lifelong relationships with older students around the world seemed fun. First, Tricia convinced her husband, Jay.
“I come in with all these brilliant ideas, and I think he just has learned to say yes and hope that they go away. … The next thing he knows, we have a young man from Germany on his way over,” Tricia said and laughed.
The Evans family hosted four students over the last few years — from Germany, Australia, Denmark and Spain.
Working and hosting
ICES approached Tricia about a job opportunity while they hosted their first exchange student. She began studying for the U.S. Department of State qualifications and additional tests for employment within the next year. The extensive process requires annual recertification and updates.
Field managers support local coordinators in the broader area, conduct training, comprise monthly contact reports with schools and families, and independently oversee between 10 and 15 exchange students themselves.
Tricia thinks language and shyness present the biggest hurdles to overcome between students and their host families.
“At the very beginning, you have to be really patient and be understanding of the students and understand that they are going to be homesick. It’s a huge adjustment for them,” she said. “Most of these kids are 15, 16, 17-ish, and they’re halfway around the world from everything that they know.”
This past school year, Mar Lopez-Torres, a 16-year-old junior from Spain, lived with the Evans. Before the program, she traveled away from home for a week at the longest. Attending school in America and living with a family she Skyped with once intimidated her at first. However, she eventually felt comfortable.
“I think the most important thing is to treat them like family. When they get here, don’t treat them like a guest,” Tricia said.
“When Mar got here, she wasn’t real comfortable with us, but we were like, ‘Come on. We’re going to Walmart. Come on. We’re going to church.’ We didn’t really give her an option of going or not going, because we literally just treat her like we do our kids.”
“The whole school experience is like the most American thing,” Lopez-Torres explained. “I used to see it in movies a lot, especially High School Musical. So, going here is like I’m in the movie, you know?”
She considered the foreign exchange program because she wanted a new experience. Lopez-Torres’s classmate participated before her and recommended it. She Googled “Oklahoma” after receiving her assignment, trying to learn anything about it.
“It’s a lot different from Barcelona. I am used to living in the city and like using public transportation and walking everywhere. And here, I cannot do that. Living in a house, it’s also different. I live in an apartment,” she said.
Over the school year, Lopez-Torres attended Friday night football games and school dances, shopped for a prom dress and rode the bus almost every day — an international symbol of education in America.
“Most of our students, they want to ride the yellow school bus. And they want to go to Walmart. … They want to do like just simple, everyday things,” Tricia said.
The Evans love to travel and took Lopez-Torres to as many states as possible. They also introduced her to In-N-Out Burger, although people’s love for it escaped her. Overall, the experience exceeded Lopez-Torres’s expectations.
“I think that’s one of the things we’ve seen consistently,” Tricia said. “Even their parents say, ‘This is their dream to come to America.’”
Lopez-Torres learned how to make new friends in Oklahoma; she attended a much smaller school in Spain. She met other foreign exchange students from around the world at ICES meetings and parties, exposing her to different cultures and helping her become more independent.
Tricia believes the program promotes world peace, and her family enjoys learning from the students as well. They pick up new words and phrases — Tricia’s son Landon now calls her “mor,” Danish for mom — and try other foods, including Vegemite from Australia. Tricia wants her children to expand their horizons also. Tricia’s husband, Jay, finds it rewarding to give somebody a unique, unforgettable experience.
“That’s not everyday stuff that you’re doing for someone,” he said.
Lopez-Torres returned to Spain in early June with plans to attend college in Barcelona following primary school. She hopes the Evans take advantage of their open invitation to visit soon.
As for the Evans, they welcome their next student in August, a high schooler from Slovakia.
“I think it’s just to learn to open your heart and to accept everybody for who they are. Don’t try to change them to fit you. You kind of open your family and your house and everything, and welcome them the way that they are,” Tricia said.
Find more information about the ICES program at icesusa.org.