Weaver exchange students

Nopparuj Aungatichart from Thailand, Patrik Skatt Bolander from Sweden and Johannes Leber from Germany are foreign exchange students that are going to school at Weaver High this year. (Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star)

WEAVER — Nearly everyone that Johannes Leber knew in Munich was talking about America.

Stereotypes abound, the 15-year-old understood. In films and videogames, the United States was a land of stuff — of cars and guns and lots of space, a big country. In German news, it was a land of political dysfunction.

“Why not go to America one time, and try to figure out what it’s like in real life?” Leber said Monday, seated in the living room of a Weaver home. “There’s always, like, this American dream. I wanted to see if this American dream was real.”

Leber is one of three teenaged students from abroad who’ll spend the coming school year as a junior at Weaver High School. He hails from Germany; the other two boys are from Thailand and Sweden, respectively.

They’ll be hosted in three homes by a group of friends who decided this year to invite international students into their families. It was a process that took months, the host families said, with the benefit being cultural exchange: They’d get a glimpse of how people from other countries live, think and speak, while showing a slice of life in Weaver.

Those hosts — Shane Adrian and Jay Shaner; Courtney and Tim Hicks; and Travis and Lacey Gokey — decided to make the invitation together. It was an invitation nearly put on hold, Adrian said, because of a policy that limits the number of international students allowed in Calhoun County School System.

Leber and the two other students were placed with their host families through EF Exchange Year, a nonprofit based in Boston that connects parents interested in sending their children abroad with willing and qualified hosts.

Adrian, a coordinator with the organization, said that when he, the Hickses and the Gokeys sent requests to sponsor their students to Calhoun County School System, they promptly met the system’s limit per academic year of three international students. The limit is set by Board of Education policy.

Each of the families was able to host the students they’d picked, and the system’s superintendent and several board members say they’re open to allowing more in the future.

Efforts were unsuccessful this week to reach officials with Oxford, Jacksonville, and Piedmont school systems. In policy manuals available online for Oxford and Jacksonville systems, no mention of foreign or exchange students is found.

Whether Anniston City Schools will accept international students is not a question that’s been asked of the system’s superintendent in some time, Darren Douthitt said Tuesday. He’s in favor of the idea, though.

“For us, it’s about diversity — it’s about opening the eyes of our students,” Douthitt said. Many of those students “haven’t been around people who speak a different language or have different customs,” he said. Any exposure to such “would make our students better global citizens ... it’s a learning experience, both ways.”

For Adrian and Shaner, best friends for more than a decade, inviting Bolander into their home in Weaver is just that. Bolander, meanwhile, said Monday he’s interested in learning about life in Weaver, and America, more generally.

“I’m pretty sure it’s not the same as in Sweden,” Bolander said.

Each of the students said he’s excited about spending the coming months in the Calhoun County city of about 3,000 people.

Nopparuj Aungatichart (known by his nickname, “Tan,” because his hosts have trouble pronouncing his name) said the new setting is vastly different than his home in Bangkok, Thailand.

In that city of 8 million people, Aungatichart said, his life was one of routine. He frequented malls and movie theaters when not in school.

“We do the same thing, Monday through Friday,” he said.

So he boarded a plane that flew him from Bangkok to Dubai to New York City to Charlotte, N.C., and, finally, Birmingham. That’s where Travis and Lacey Gokey picked him up and drove him to Weaver.

“There were a lot of trees and mountains,” he said.

His hosts, meanwhile, say they’re eager for their young children — Lathan, 8, and Sarah, 5 — to learn something new about the world through Aungatichart.

“They get to experience something different,” said Travis Gokey. “And as a family, we’re learning that it’s more important to do things together — like cleaning the house,” he joked.

The three host families already say they don’t want to think about the end of their guests’ stay. They’ll provide three meals a day and transportation to and from school for each. They aren’t paid for their hospitality, but say they’ll receive something in return, all the same.

“You get a lot of crazy looks and questions,” said Hicks. Her son, Hunter, says he’s looking forward to having an older brother in Leber. “These kids are going to change our lives, but we’re going to change theirs. It’s cool all around.”


Staff writer Zach Tyler: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @ZTyler_Star.