MEAD – Five years ago Shannon Smithson signed up to host an exchange student. Within six months she was signed on as a coordinator for Aspect Foundation, an organization that places foreign students in schools and with host families.
Since then she has hosted four students now and coordinated nearly 40 placements from Minden, Iowa to Columbus and everywhere in between.
Mattia Zebri from Pesaro, Italy is one of Smithson’s current placements. Mattia lives with Sarah and Nate Mongon and their two sons and is a junior at Mead High School.
Mattia said his Italian family is no stranger to an exchange program.
“My mother was an exchange student 30 years ago. She stayed in Michigan,” he said. “She had a really good time, so she always wanted me to have this experience. (To) be an exchange students was one of my dreams when I was younger. I’m so grateful to her. I›m loving my time here in Nebraska.”
Mattia said his first American Christmas has been somewhat familiar to how he celebrates back home in Italy.
“Back in Italy our traditions are pretty similar to the United States,” he said. “Here you just make everything bigger. I usually spent my Christmas skiing on the mountains with my family, but I›m sure that I will enjoy this American Christmas as well.”
Mattia’s host family got involved in the student exchange program to learn about another culture and expose their children to new experiences.
“Having someone stay in your house for nine months you learn so much about that person,” Sarah said. “We have done this for four years and have enjoyed getting to know the different kids that have stayed with us.”
Mongon said Mattia has fit right in with their family in more ways than one.
“We think Mattia might have gained a few pounds enjoying all the American foods during Thanksgiving,” Sarah said. “As we got ready for a couple Christmas celebrations, he is learning just how much baking goes into the treats we all enjoy.”
Founded in 1985 as a small non-profit organization offering affordable study-abroad opportunities to students from around the world, Aspect Foundation continues their mission by providing a variety of educational and cultural exchange programs in the United States and countries abroad.
Smithson said that cultural exchange at its core is a relationship between people. She believes in the foundation’s mission of building international goodwill, cross-cultural understanding and a peaceful future through educational and cultural exchange.
“Cultural exchange is so important for the future of the world,” Smithson said. “It provides communities, schools, families insight into a culture that they wouldn’t otherwise know anything about. We never have enough host families for all of the students that apply to go on exchange and schools tend to fill up early so if anyone is able to help, even temporarily, it would be wonderful.”
As a coordinator, Smithson said she treasures her time experiencing everyday firsts with her global kids, as other host families do as well.
“My first student from Italy learned about laundry for the first time,” she said. “In the beginning she had like 20 different piles because she was so diligent about following what the tag directions stated. A few months in she decided everything could be washed together to save time.
Smithson said as a coordinator she had a very rare first this year when a scholarship student from last year returned to Nebraska for her freshman year of college in Lincoln.
By providing exchange experiences that offer unique global perspectives and encouraging the confidence to make a difference in an interconnected world, Smithson said the opportunities to learn are endless.
“Whether you are a high school student studying in a new and exciting place, a host family welcoming a new international member of the family, or a coordinator bringing exchange students to your local community, being a part of Aspect Foundation opens your world to new possibilities,” she said.
“I truly love what I get to do with these students from around the globe.”