Lara Nunes and Milica Knezevic came to the United States to see more of the world. Community connections in York have been some of the most important parts of their stay.
Milica, 17, and Lara, 15, are exchange students at York Comprehensive High School. Milica, from Montenegro, a small Balkan country on the Adriatic Sea, and Lara, from Germany, are staying with host Genevieve Polites near York.
“I really think that America lives up to its name as the land of opportunity,” said Milica, a junior at YCHS. “We see people here have a lot of opportunity. If you are ambitious, and you follow your dream, America can offer a lot to you.”
Lara, a YCHS sophomore, believes the experience has changed her life. “What we have shared, the three of us, has changed me, and my opinions have really changed. It’s widened my horizons.”
Both girls have been involved in extracurricular activities the high school and have done volunteer work in the York area that has been required as part of their stay.
Milica has given more than 100 hours of community service hours, well beyond the 30 required hours, picking up trash on roads, volunteering with Keep York County Beautiful, volunteering at the Upper Palmetto YMCA, the Greater York Chamber of Commerce and PATH, which serves needy families in the York area.
She also helped launch a debate club at YCHS. The club wasn’t able to compete because it was formed too late in the school year, but she and Lara both participated.
Lara also participated in the YCHS spring production of “Hairspray,” playing a gym teacher and a dancer, and she worked as a manager of the school volleyball team.
Lara said she was surprised at the variety of sports and other extracurricular activities offered to American students. In Germany, she said, school focuses on academics and other activities are separate.
“At the football game, I felt like a part of it,” Lara said, referring to the Cougar games. “I felt so connected with the other people cheering for your team. I loved that.”
Polites, 76, said both girls’ visits were arranged through CIEE, the Council for International Educational Exchange, a nonprofit organization that has provided education and cultural exchange opportunities for students since 1947.
Polites said she and her husband, who died nine years ago, hosted an exchange student from Belgium during the 1980s, and that student has returned to visit four times.
Perhaps because of her previous experience, Polites said, CIEE contacted her last year and asked her to again serve as a host home.
Polites, who went through a CIEE approval process before she was accepted as a host, said she had an opportunity to choose the region of her student visitors.
She chose Eastern Europe, in part because her mother’s family is from the Ukraine.
“It’s just been great,” Polites said of her experience. “We have a good time. They love to debate contemporary topics, things that are in the news, like racism and equality of women, things like that.”
Polites said both girls are good students and spend a lot of time studying. Milica’s visit was made possible through a competitive grant, she said, and was one of only 11 students out of 5,000 receive the grant.
Milica also traveled for a week to Washington, D.C., through a separate grant that offered students a civic education workshop. The students visited Capitol Hill, met representatives and saw other sites, Milica said.
“It was one of the best parts of the whole experience,” she said.
Both Lara and Milica agree that European education is more challenging and demanding than what they’ve experienced in the United States. However, both say they are interested in returning to the United States to study at the college level.
Lara said she might like to study languages and work as a foreign language teacher or translator, while Milica is interested in a career in medicine.
Milica said she sees opportunities for change in her home country.
“This year has showed me so many ways that you can improve society without even knowing that you’re doing it,” Milica said. “I feel like America has inspired me to the point where I want to change everything at home.”
The girls also say they’ve learned a lot from getting to know each other, and they expect to keep in touch.
Lara said Milica “is one of the few people in life I have talked to. I really feel like she’s my sister. My voice doesn’t talk to her as much as my soul does.”
Jennifer Becknell • 803-329-4077
CIEE, or Council for International Educational Exchange, is a nonprofit organization that has provided education and cultural exchange opportunities for students since 1947.
Host families are needed. Host families open their hearts and homes to a foreign exchange student for either five or 10 months. Students come with their own spending money and health insurance and the desire to practice their English and live like a member of the family.
Host families provide meals for students and a place to sleep and study and can gain a new understanding of a different culture. For information, contact CIEE representative Patricia Hasty at 704-661-4765 or firstname.lastname@example.org.