ALPENA - Russian exchange student Diana Panova has been attending Alpena High School since late August, learning about American culture and making lifelong friendships with fellow students. Panova first traveled to Alpena through the American Scandinavian Student Exchange and Future Leaders Exchange program offered to students in former Soviet Union bloc countries, which is administered by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The FLEX program provides scholarships for high school students from Eurasia to spend an academic year in the United States, living with a host family and attending American high school. Only about one in 50 students who apply for the program are selected.
"I like it here," Panova said. "You get to choose your classes in school, and in Russia we have around five hours of oral and written homework, and here there is not as much."
There are over 300 schools in the town that Panova is from in northern Russia, with a population of over 350,000 people. She said her class is made up of 30-50 students who stay with each other from class to class.
"School is more for study in Russia. We have a standard curriculum, go to one school, and stay there until we graduate," Panova said. "The town has a center for students to have different clubs; they are not offered at school."
Panova is enjoying her stay here in Alpena, and getting along great with her host family, Steven and Lana Lutes, who contribute tremendously to her positive experience.
"I have a good relationship with my host parents," she said. "They are very nice."
The Luteses applied to be a host family through curiosity about an ASSE ad posted in The News. They emailed the company to get more information, decided they wanted to do it, and filed the paperwork. Once they were approved, they were matched with Panova based on similarities and interests, and started communicating with her right away.
"We got to know each other a bit before she arrived," Steven Lutes said. "She knew English pretty well when she first came here, but she's improved quite a bit. The first week she had to translate some of her homework to Russian, then do the problem, then translate it back to English, but she is very smart and learned quickly. She's tried to teach me some Russian, which is a very complex language, but I've learned the Russian alphabet."
Lutes said they have taken Panova to Traverse City, Birch Run, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, and to Chicago, because she wanted to see a "large American city."
"My host family took me to Hubbard Lake, which was very beautiful," Panova said. "I went to Chicago and saw the big city. I liked the city."
Cultures in the cities of Russia differ greatly when it comes to holiday celebrations, schooling and even the attitudes of the people.
"People in Russia don't smile as much as people do here," she said, and pointed out that in Russia they don't fly flags everywhere either.
Panova isn't the only foreign exchange student at AHS, and she has made friends with the other exchange students through the International Culture Exchange Club.
"You guys are really lucky here, you get so many exchange students," she said. "I don't feel like I'm alone here, there are others doing the same thing that I'm doing."
Her Russian mother is a stay-at-home mom, while her father works full time. Panova gets to Skype with her family on the weekends, but with the time difference of about eight hours, it can be hard.
When she returns to Russia, Panova will have to take one more year of school and pass state exams to graduate. She plans on attending a university to become a doctor in Russia. School is free in Russia until college, in which payment is based on state test scores and the university students wish to attend.
"I would love to come back to the United States after school," she said. "This year has changed me and I have learned so much."
Panova will be traveling back to Russia in June, where she will first have summer vacation, then start her senior year of school in the fall. Her parents have invited her host family to visit in July to learn more about her culture in Russia.
"She's anxious to show me her hometown and take me to St. Petersburg," Steven Lutes said. "I urge families to definitely consider being a host family. It's a really good experience to have someone else with different culture and life experiences in your home. When Diana arrived, she was almost a stranger, but after her stay here with us, she's just like our own daughter."
Anyone interested in becoming a host family with a student exchange program can contact AHS Counselor Lorrie Vought at 340-0265.
Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.