By Jillian Sims, High School Programs Compliance and Operations Manager
The moment that Ota felt he belonged in the US was on the way to a local tennis meet in Cody, Wyoming on his team bus.
“We drove through the mountains. It was the most beautiful drive in my life. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, no wind, a new asphalt road – just a perfect day. We were talking and laughing. It was an awesome feeling. The nature around us made it a special moment and I truly felt like I was part of the US. I felt like I was part of this beauty….It might sound weird, but I could live just for that moment. It is impossible to describe how perfect of a moment it was.”
With a statement like that, it seems clear that Ota, high school exchange student from the Czech Republic, just might be having a great exchange year and is grateful to have been the recipient of this year’s Roger White Scholarship. Truly, too, it seems that there couldn’t be a more appreciative or deserving student for the scholarship. “I was very happy when I found out about it because to become an exchange student was my dream for eight years,” Ota says, recalling finding out about the award. “If I did not get the scholarship, I would not probably be here…. It gave me the opportunity to experience American culture, learn English, and make new friends.”
At the Chicago office, where CCI Greenheart has its national headquarters, we were pleased to meet Ota while he was visiting with family friends during his spring break. With a smile beaming from ear to ear, he told us of his experience as an exchange student, what it is like adjusting to a new culture and family, and of his adventures so far. One thing in particular he spoke about was the experience of being placed with younger host parents and a six year old host brother. With an ever ever present smile as he spoke about them, he expressed how the family’s love of sarcasm helped him not only to feel comfortable, but forced him to be quicker with this English.
Asking his host mother Cadence about the challenge of being younger hosts, she agreed with Ota and said “I think, like Ota said, that it has actually made the experience a little easier. We feel comfortable talking to him about our daily lives and I feel that he is comfortable when it comes to opening up to us. We all have some really great conversations and he fits right in with us. He understands our sense of humor and can jump right in and joke around right alongside of us. We all get along very well, we have not really experienced any major challenges when it comes to our home life. Ota is very respectful of us and our rules… I feel like we were really lucky to be able to bring Ota into our family.”
Host mom, Cadence, and host dad, Doug, are also the proud parents of an energetic six year old who adores his new big brother. Asking about what this experience has been for the family, Cadence adds, “He wants to be with him all the time. When Ota is not home, Braelyn constantly asks when he will be back. Even though they have a 10 year age difference, they really enjoy their time together. They act like they have been siblings forever. They get along great but they also have disagreements just like any other families with multiple children. No matter what, they love each other and would do anything for the other. It has been so amazing to see their relationship grow.”
It’s been a wonderful learning experience for the family, being able to learn about different cultures, holiday celebrations, and the occasional Czech word. For Braelyn, it’s another reason to celebrate. “Having Ota here was a dream for him, even before Ota arrived Braelyn was talking about his brother from the Czech Republic that was going to be coming to live with us. It makes my heart so happy to hear Braelyn telling Ota that he is the best brother ever. Their relationship is one that will last forever.”
And while Ota loves his host family and the experience he has had with them so far, he also spoke of what it was like to adjust to a new place, school system, and home so far away from what he knew. “The biggest challenge for me was to leave my family in the Czech Republic. My family is great and I love them. Being without them was very difficult, especially in the beginning. The way I overcame this problem was to make many friends as possible and try to get involved with many activities. Basically, what I was trying to do is take every opportunity which was given to me. It worked.” Ota applied this philosophy and joined several school sports and dove into academics and volunteering.
“Being busy is the way to overcome being 7,000 miles away from my family. I did not have any time to think about them…and when I was surrounded by so many friends, I knew that I am not alone here. Plus, my host family was very nice to me which makes this place feel like home.”
Together, host family and Ota have had some amazing times so far, from his first fishing trip in the Bighorn Mountains, to Ota’s first NFL game, school events, and family holidays. Cadence shares, “Just like all the laughs we have had, we have also had so many great memories.” She recalls a family birthday celebration trip to a football game and says of the trip, “We had a great time at the game and and we were really happy that Ota enjoyed it as much as he did . He has always been so appreciative of everything since he arrived here in Sheridan, WY. He is grateful of everything he is given in life and that is something that makes him such a special person. We are looking forward to having many more memories with him before he goes home.”
On being a host family Cadence says, “The experience of hosting an exchange student is so amazing. I would tell those that have never hosted that when you open up your home and your lives to an exchange student, your life will change forever. Ours has changed for the better since having Ota here with us. I know that even after he goes back home that we will all maintain this relationship for the rest of our lives. Ota has become part of our family and we would not change that for anything. The experiences we have had this year have been amazing and unforgettable.”
When we asked Ota what was ahead for him, both in the US and in life, he shared with us his plans for the year and hopes for the future. For the remainder of his year here, there are school events like prom, and an end of the year trip where his father and sister will meet his host family and do a bit more traveling.
“Now, on what’s ahead for me in life” Ota says, “I do not know. I learned many important things in America. One of them is to take every good opportunity, not to be lazy, and the other thing is to do in my life whatever I want to do. What I mean by that is that I want to find a job that I am interested in because a job is a huge part of our lives. I was also thinking about becoming an exchange student again. Not necessarily for the entire year… maybe just a couple months in England or Germany, just to experience their culture. It sounds really interesting to me. We will see.”
When you meet a student like Ota, who seems every bit the model exchange student, you tend to suspect he will do all that and so much more. With enthusiasm and a sense of adventure and appreciation for the world around you, there isn’t much standing in your way. At CCI Greenheart, we are grateful for the opportunity to share cultures and friendships through cultural exchange and provide opportunities for students and families.