South county families play host to Spanish exchange students

The Capital (Annapolis, MD), October 2, 2008, page B2
By: Mitchelle Stephenson


A group of 28 Spanish exchange students and their two escorts traversed an ocean and traded a Spanish-speaking home for English-speaking substitutes in south county – but just temporarily.

On Sept. 4, a group of teenagers made the trip, and were sponsored by 30 south county families. The teens stayed for three weeks, then returned to Spain Sept. 25.

For the host families, “it was fun and it was hard,” said Lisa Gaskins, an Edgewater mother who hosted Noellia Iglesias, 16. “But I’m really glad we did it.”

Mrs. Gaskins’ daughter, Shannon, is a student at South River High School who has been taking Spanish throughout secondary school.

Last spring, Joanne Smith, program coordinator for the IFF-Intercultural Friends Foundation exchange program, an independent exchange program, came to Shannon’s class and spoke about the opportunity to host a Spanish student for three weeks.

Later, after Mrs. Gaskins and Mrs. Smith spoke on the phone, the family was pretty well sold on the idea. They completed the necessary paperwork and had their home inspected.

The inspection included making sure that each exchange student has his or her own bed, Mrs. Gaskins said. And the families can request a boy or girl.

Exchange student Rosa Mendez, 16, had her own ideas about what her American experience would be like. Some were correct, others were way off the mark.

For example, “I thought that the boys would be disrespectful to girls in school,” Rosa said, noting that it seems that way in American movies. But she said she was surprised to find that the boys at South River High were well-behaved toward the girls.

On the other hand, she was correct on another point. “I thought that everyone drives a lot and the children have a lot of activities each day,” Rosa said, adding that notion was confirmed by her experiences here.

The host families took the students to places near and far.

The exchange students did whatever the families did, Mrs. Smith said. One family took their student to New York City to see a play on Broadway. The Gaskins took their student to Philadelphia. Others went to Ocean City or to the Renaissance Festival; to Redskins football games and Nationals baseball games. Many enjoyed trips to Westfield Annapolis mall.

Inma Valdes, one of the adult escorts, has been on a number of these trips. She’s an English teacher in her hometown of Oviedo, Spain. While in the United States, she stayed with Mrs. Smith, the program coordinator, and spent her days escorting thestudents throughout the area.

Because the exchange students don’t spend every day at school here, the organization plans activities and day trips so that the students can play tourist while in the United States.

On the last night of their stay, the students shared a potluck dinner with the families in the program at the Davidsonville Ruritan Center where the students performed skits and sang songs for their host families.

Mrs. Smith said that each year she finds it amazing that so many families are willing to open their hearts and their homes to these students. “It is a rewarding experience for everyone, not just students, but also the host families,” she said.

For more information on the program, visit

Mitchelle Stephenson is a freelance writer living in Edgewater.


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