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Cultural Exchange

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Foreign exchange student is spending a year with a Gravel Switch family

By Stevie Lowery

When Gulbutamo Mamadshoeva arrived in the United States, Marion County was not what she envisioned.

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"In Europe and Asia, everybody thinks that America is New York and Disney World," said Mamadshoeva, 16, who is better known as Gulya to her friends.

Gulya is a native if Tajikistan, and she just completed the first half of her junior year as a foreign exchange student at Marion County High School. She is spending the year with her host family of Steve and Stephanie Weber of Gravel Switch.

Tajikistan is a mix of European and Asian cultures. It is located south of Russia, north of Afghanistan and west of China. Like her native country, Gulya's own family is a mix. Her father is Russian and her mother is Shugni. They live in the Pamir region of Tajikistan, and Gulya is one of six children - five girls and one boy.

She studied Russian and English (of the British variety) in her school in Tajikistan, and she plans to continue her studies at a university in Russia when she returns home.

Gulya has enjoyed all her classes at MCHS, but her favorite class was her English class during the first trimester, she said.

She's also been amused by some of the questions she's been asked by her classmates, such as if her family has electricity and if they have a table. (The answer is yes to both, by the way.)

Like teenagers in the United States, she grew up watching MTV. The difference is that she could watch it in Russian or English.

While she's in the U.S., Gulya is staying with Steve and Stephanie Weber and their children, who live near Gravel Switch.

"She has to have a sense of humor around us," Stephanie said. "She wouldn't survive if she didn't."

The Webers became a host family a few years ago. Their oldest daughter, Kelsey, was interested in becoming an exchange student in Germany. She didn't qualify that first year, but the organization asked if the Webers were interested in hosting a student of their own.

"I thought no. I don't think so. We don't have enough room," Stephanie said.

With time, Stephanie became more comfortable with the idea, although Steve admitted he had some reservations as well.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh.' I was worried about it to start out because I didn't know what kind of experience it would be," he said.

But Steve trusted Stephanie when she told him it would be OK.

Since then, the Webers have hosted students from Asia, Europe and South America.

Gulya is the youngest student to stay with them and the first to attend MCHS. Their previous students attended Boyle County High School.

Steve works at TBMK, and Gulya rides to school with him in the mornings. In the afternoon, she meets Stephanie and the rest of the Weber family at the Marion County Public Library. The Webers' children are home-schooled, which has also given Gulya another perspective of American education.

Stephanie spent a year [in Sweden] as an exchange student herself, and her own experience affected how she treats the students who stay with her.

"When I was with my host family, I felt like a visitor and like they were waiting for me to leave," she said. "I wanted the kids here to have a better experience."

Stephanie said she treats their exchange students as if they are one of her own children. She incorporates them into the Webers family life, which can be quiet at times.

"It can't always be exciting," Stephanie said with a smile.

She added that an important part of hosting a student from another country is learning how to communicate with them. This means understanding some of the cultural differences as well.

"As part of her culture, [Gulya] will smile and say everything is fine, when it's not really," Stephanie said.

Gulya is a Shia Muslim, and more specifically a Shia Ismaili Muslim, which Stephanie described as being on the liberal side of the faith. Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of this branch of Islam, which emphasizes a thinking, spiritual faith that teaches compassion and tolerance, according to The Institute of Ismaili Studies website.

Gulya explained that she and her family celebrate Christmas and New Year's together. They have a tree, but they don't decorate it the way Americans do.

During Ramadan, a month when Muslims will fast from sunrise to sundown, Gulya said she hasn't done the fast yet.

"I'm not good at fasting," Gulya said. "My mom does. I fasted one time at home, but it was just five days."

Gulya had not heard of Kentucky when she was one of approximately 100 students from the former Soviet Union countries who were selected to be exchange students. Approximately 40,000 students applied for those 100 spots.

Since arriving in the Bluegrass State, the Webers have taught her a bit of the local culture as well.

"She [Gulya] has to be a UK fan," Stephanie said. "She does have a U of L shirt, but we boo her when she wears it."

And Gulya has shared some of her own culture as well, including some of her native cuisine.

"She's the best cook we've had, actually," Stephanie said.

But just as important, Gulya is gaining confidence in herself through her experience in the United States.

On her way to Kentucky, she and three other exchange students got lost in Chicago. Until that point in her life, she said she'd always had someone around to show her what to do.

She still has trouble understanding some people's accents and she doesn't always understand the slang that her classmates use, but she is more comfortable asking her friends to explain things she doesn't understand.

"Now I feel I can make my own way," Gulya said.

And she also knows what she has learned from her time with the Webers and at MCHS will last long after she has returned home.

"I'm having a good experience here," she said, "and I will use that for the rest of my life." 

Interested in a cultural exchange?

If you have questions about hosting or becoming a foreign exchange student, Stephanie Weber is the person to ask.

Weber is a local coordinator for the Council on International Educational Exchange. The CIEE provides opportunities for students and educators to visit foreign countries and to come to the United States.

Weber was an exchange student herself, and her family has hosted several exchange students. She said there are scholarship programs available.

She can be reached at (859) 332-8070 or via email at webdis@qx.net.

For more information about CIEE, call 1 (800) 448-9944 or visit the website www.ciee.org/highschool.