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Deception in exchange: Foreign exchange students not getting what they pay for
[October 15, 2006]

Deception in exchange: Foreign exchange students not getting what they pay for

(Times-News (Twin Falls, ID) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Oct. 15--TWIN FALLS --Holim Wang didn't know what to expect when he came to the United States two years ago, but something didn't seem quite right when he and three other Korean exchange students found themselves sleeping on the floor of a trailer home in Jerome.

They were told that when they arrived in Idaho they would stay with host families and be enrolled in a public high school.

But they soon learned that they had neither a host family, nor the possibility of enrollment in a public high school. They were the victims of a lucrative business that was misleading students such as Wang to make more money.

"When I came here I didn't know anything and I couldn't speak English very well," said Wang, 18, who is now enrolled in Twin Falls High School and lives with a host family. "Before I left I was told that I would have a place to live and I would go to public school, but when I got here the coordinator told me that there was no room in the high school. She said I couldn't get in anyway because my English was bad."

But Wang's host family called the high school and learned that there was an opening and that the coordinator had not spoken with the any school counselors. That was when Wang and his host family started questioning the integrity of a local coordinator working with the Council on International Educational Exchange, the Boston-based company that was responsible for Wang's placement.

What Wang did not know is that foreign exchange students have to apply before March or April to reserve a spot in Twin Falls High School. According to state code, public schools can only accept one foreign exchange student for every 200 registered students. Currently, Twin Falls High School can only accept about five exchange students per year, and most of those spots are filled before the application deadline in April.

However, local coordinators who work for national student-placement organizations are paid based on the number of students they can place in host homes and local schools. Although most schools are required to work only with organizations that are approved by state and federal departments of education, many educators said there are local coordinators who abuse the system in order to reap greater profits.

"We've had some concerns about things like the kind of screening process these companies do of their coordinators," said Kevin Newbry, principal of Lighthouse Christian High School. "I've heard of instances where they will fly into the Twin Falls airport and no one will be there to pick them up, or they won't have a place to live."

Because Lighthouse is a private school, it is not required to follow some state guidelines such as the maximum number of exchange students who can enroll. Most exchange students are paying companies to place them in public schools, but are being placed in private schools where space is available --at a cost.

Wang said it would have cost him about $15,000 to enroll in Lighthouse. Although many private schools are simply keeping their doors open to any students, Newbry said he recognizes the problems with how some coordinators are operating.

"It really puts these kids in a bad position because they don't know the language or the area very well," he said. "But I think it becomes a money thing, and I think it's something that needs to be addressed."

But the problems are not being addressed. Although Wang was fortunate enough to locate a host family that works directly with Twin Falls High School to reserve a spot for him before the deadline, many exchange students are still arriving in Twin Falls and being left to fend for themselves.

Minju Choi, 16, worked with Tennessee-based Worldwide International Students Exchange to attend a public high school in Texas, but she ended up in Idaho --a place she had never heard of.

"It was very different from what I thought," she said. "I thought I would go to public school, but I'm in a Christian private school. I also thought I would be in a bigger place."

Choi and Wang said they were not told what to expect, so neither of them realized the deception until other people in Twin Falls voiced their concerns.

Worldwide International Students Exchange did not return phone calls from the Times-News, and CIEE said it wanted to look further into the matter before commenting.

Regardless of the actions, or lack thereof, by national student-exchange programs, both exchange students credited people in Twin Falls for helping them make the best of a difficult situation.

In Wang's case, it was Riley Traveller, 17, who heard an announcement in a school bulletin about the need for a host family. And Traveller was more than willing to help out.

"Yeah, I was always beating my brother at pingpong," he said. "So I thought it would be awesome to get a Korean so I could be challenged."

But things aren't always what they seem because Wang doesn't play pingpong.

Times-News writer Joshua Palmer covers education. He can be reached at

Copyright (c) 2006, The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho,
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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