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Welcoming French Students

Students get crash course in American life.

When Edouard Collignon came to the United States three weeks ago for the first time, he admitted he already knew there were things about America he wouldn't like, one of those being baseball.

"It's too boring," the skinny blonde teen-ager said with a smile from the kitchen of his host family's house.

"There went taking him to an Orioles game," joked Mary Beth Marklein, host mother to Collignon, about his dislike for America's favorite past-time.

Peter Kunkel, Marklein's husband, quickly added that although Collignon did not like baseball, he was a big fan of the NBA, specifically the San Antonio Spurs.

Marklein and Kunkel were one of four Herndon residents to open their home last month for three weeks to an exchange student from France through the World Exchange program.

"We were interested in experiencing other cultures, and we wanted to give that opportunity to somebody else," said Marklein, adding that she and her husband don't have any children, so it was nice to host a teen-ager for a short time.

"We were concerned that they would turn away some of the students because they were having a hard time placing them," said Kunkel. "We didn't want someone like Edouard to be turned away."

SINCE 1985, World Exchange, a nonprofit organization with locations throughout the country, has worked to bring young French students to America for three weeks to live with host families.

"It's a cultural exchange where students come here to experience American life and to learn English," said Wendy Ahart, regional program director.

Ahart, who has worked for World Exchange for 17 years, said she places, on average, about 20 students ranging in age from 15 to 18, with host families in the Virginia area each summer.

"Host families need to be willing to include students in their family life," said Ahart about what she looks for in a family.

She also said knowledge of French is not required.

"It's a complete immersion program where the kids want to learn English," she said. "In general they do show improvement before they leave."

Marklein said that although she knew French from previous visits to France, she tried to only speak English.

"Every now and then we'd both be looking at the dictionary," said Marklein about the first week.

"Kids are very adaptable," said Kunkel of the language barrier. "If he'd spoken no English at all we would have learned to communicate."

ALTHOUGH THE PROGRAM asked that the students don't interact too much during the three weeks with each other, Collignon did do some things with another student and his host family in Herndon, but that they spoke English often.

"Another boy in this city, I played tennis with him and we rode bicycles," said Collignon. "I saw the museums with him."

Ahart said some families chose to immerse their students by sending them to day camps with their children, while others will take them on family vacations.

Kunkel and Marklein said they opted to take Collignon on a road trip.

"Peter took him to upstate New York where his family is from, then they drove to Wisconsin," said Marklein who's family lives there, adding they stopped in Chicago along the way.

Marklein said while in Wisconsin her family had a pig roast and a fish fry, American experiences she was happy to share with Collignon.

Collignon said in the three weeks he learned his stereotype, that American's did not eat vegetables, was wrong and that he loved how big American's trucks were.

HE NOTED OTHER differences, saying there was more space and more houses than Paris, where his family lives, and that he did not like the constant use of air-conditioning.

Kunkel took advantage of the opportunity that Collignon had never maintained a lawn, and showed him how to use a lawnmower.

"I learned about cutting grass," said Collignon, as Kunkel emphasized that Collignon had offered to cut the grass, he did not make him.

Marklein and Kunkel said Collignon adapted well to their American lifestyle, offering to help with daily chores, and that they even had times when they felt like he was their son.

"One night the music was a little loud," joked Marklein, "I thought, O.K. if this was my kid would I tell him to turn it down?"

She and Kunkel agreed this is something they hope to do again, although maybe not right away because their jobs will keep them busy over the next year.

"I really enjoyed my trip here and my trip to New York and Chicago," said Collignon. "I enjoyed all I did ... it was good to be here and see an American family."