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Phoenix High School’s Alina Diacenco is an exchange student from Moldova. - Jim Craven

It's a smaller world

Most of the students at Phoenix High School on North Rose Street hadn't heard of the nation of Moldova until Alina Diacenco came to the campus.

The 17-year-old foreign-exchange student came to the United States to practice her English and to learn more about American culture, but she's leaving the campus' some 750 students with a glimpse into her tiny Communist country wedged between Romania and the Ukraine and part of the former Soviet Union.

"I didn't even know Moldova before she came," says Phoenix High senior Meghan Steiner. "Now I know what languages they speak and that kids are kids in every country."

Exchange students help fill a hole in Southern Oregon students' cultural education, school counselors say. This school year, cities and countries from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, to Norheimsund, Norway, to Tangara da Serra, Brazil, are represented by exchange students at high schools in Jackson County.

While county high schools have seen an influx of students who have immigrated from Central and South America over the past decade, the growth of other immigrant groups nearly is nonexistent.

"We don't have a very diverse culture here," says Ken Kigel, Ashland High School assistant principal. "What I like about exchange students is they bring diversity and a different perspective. In classes, our students get to hear different points of view, different ways of looking at things."

Diancenco, from the city of Anenii Noi near the capital of Chisinau, is a microcosm of the ethnic and linguistic diversity in Moldova, a nation slightly larger than the state of Maryland. Her mother is Romanian, while her father is Russian.

"Some people ask me, 'Where is Moldova?' " she says. "I say, 'It's close to Russia.' Many people still think I'm Russian."

Indeed, much of the food and customs in Moldova is similar to Russia, including the red beet soup, borscht.

Diancenco speaks both languages as well as fluent English, which has improved during her nine-month stay in the United States.

She shows off some newly attained slang: "What the heck!"

"Everyone thought I was Mexican because of my skin," says Sam Halaseh, an exchange student at North Medford High School from Madaba, Jordan. "I have to explain to them I am from the Middle East next to Iraq."

Another misconception is that he is Muslim.

Halaseh is Catholic, a minority in Jordan of less than 5 percent.

"They were asking if my mom is wearing a veil," he says.

Students come to Jackson County schools through exchange companies such as Pacific Intercultural Exchange. The exchange companies take full responsibility for placing the student with a host family and helping them to acclimate to American life.

Yejin Huh, an exchange student at Crater High School who came from Anyang, South Korea, says she put on 35 pounds after discovering the concept of the drive-through restaurant and Mexican food.

Nevertheless, she says, "I think it's great I can come here and share my country and experience American culture."

But the most notable difference between the United States and the countries of some exchange students is the school system, students say.

"In South Korea, we study a lot," Huh says. "Some students stay at school until 10 p.m. The school provides lunch and dinner. We wear a school uniform every day. Here, students wear whatever they want. They dye their hair red or blue. They express themselves well. I like that."

Diancenco says the best thing about America is how friendly the people are, and she believes Americans' volunteerism — a notion almost unheard of in Moldova — is what gives the United States its strength.

"They say hi, and they always say compliments," she says.

Without exchange students, some Southern Oregon students say they would miss out on an enriching cultural experience in high school.

"It's nice to hear alternate views on what we believe," Steiner said. "We are kind of sheltered here. We have Caucasians and Hispanics, and that's about it."

Oregon gives high schools per-pupil funding for exchange students, the same way it funds education for resident students, Kigel said. Some high schools such as Ashland expect to bring in fewer exchange students next year because of budget cuts and the byproduct of higher class sizes.

Other school districts such as Butte Falls, Prospect and Rogue River don't have exchange students because they can't find families to host them during the school year. Pacific Intercultural Exchange is currently seeking local host families for next year. Call 664-3971.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

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