A foreign exchange student story 50 years on

 By June Alexander

A pamphlet attached to the noticeboard outside the school principal’s office caught my eye. The year was 1967 and I was 16. The words ‘essay’, ‘scholarship’, ‘USA’, drew me in.

The American Field Service was offering scholarships to students to study the senior year of school in the United States. To have a chance, I needed to write an essay.

Excited, I asked my dad that night if it would be okay to lodge an entry. He replied, ‘you won’t know unless you have a go’. So I wrote my essay, on why I wanted to study in the USA, filled out lots of forms, nervously attended interviews in Melbourne, and now, after a long selection process, 12 months later I was boarding a plane with 111 other young Australians bound for the US for a year.

I had romantic impressions of the United States to this point due to the Wild West TV shows, and my love of Zane Grey books. I dreamed that I would be placed with a family on a Texas ranch and between going to class I would ride a horse over the plains and help to round up and lasso the cattle. I was placed on a farm, that part became true. But not on a ranch in Texas. I was placed with a family-owned Hampshire hog farm in Missouri.

My American host family were at St Louis Airport to greet me on August 3, 1968. There was my mom, Irene, and Pat,  16, and younger siblings Linda, Terry and little Jim, aged four. John, the oldest son, 14, was at home on the farm with my dad, Ruben.

Everything, including their accents, was new to me.

Saying ‘goodbye’ to my boyfriend George back home in Australia had been the saddest part of leaving home for a year. I would write three letters a week to him for the entire year, plus two letters a week to my parents, and other letters to relatives and friends. This of course was in addition to writing to myself, in my diary.

I kept the letters that I received, and these, together with my diaries, 50 years on, enable that year away from home to be relived as though it were happening today.

Of course a lot can and does happen in 50 years, and merely to be here to mark that milestone is a cause for celebration.

I have returned to visit my host family whenever possible – in the early 1980s, George and I visited for three months, bringing our four children then aged five to nine years, with us. In the past 10 years, when I became involved in eating disorder advocacy and began attending conferences in the United States (with the Academy for Eating Disorders and also the National Eating Disorders Association) I have stopped over in Missouri to visit my family, and when possible to also catch up with friends from my senior year of school.

When the decision was made to attend this year’s AED conference in New York, I was excited to also arrange to visit the Midwest on the way there.

So it was that this past weekend, I have attended two reunions.

One with my classmates from Wellsville High, and the other with my host family. Sadly some of my best friends from school have already passed on, and my lovely host mom, Irene, also has passed on. I have been able to feel deeply connected with all through visiting with everyone present and giving thanks for the wonderful opportunities made available to me all those years ago.

My American siblings, like myself, have married, have children, and grandchildren now, and so we have a very large family tree. Plans are underway for the youngest generations in our two countries to meet and mingle, so that they can have opportunity to learn about the world and themselves, as we did, from each other.

For me, my American family has been a great source of comfort, connection, love, acceptance and encouragement at all times. My American family provided what my family of origin in Australia was unable to provide during my long recovery from my eating disorder and co-morbid anxiety and depression. To be hugged and to be told you are loved, is the best medicine of all.

I wish to thank Irene and Ruben Edwards, for taking me into their home, making a family of eight, for a year in 1968-69, and for continuing to welcome me into their home ever since. I wish to thank them for taking me to the Southern Baptist Church, in the wee small town of Olney, and for introducing me to wonderful people like Judy and Gordon Voss, now octogenarians, who took me to the very same church this past Sunday.

Times have changed. A lot of small towns in the American Midwest have depleted populations, more people are choosing to live in the cities.

But the folks I know retain their core values and beliefs. Whatever challenges we face in life, the challenges are more easily met and overcome, when we know we can count on love and acceptance. This is my wish for you and for our world.

 

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