For exchange students, coming to Park City has been life-changing | ParkRecord.com

For exchange students, coming to Park City has been life-changing

They’ve reveled in exploring the American culture

Marla Howard, left, and her husband Michael hosted exchange students Silvia Ibrahim, middle left, and Ava Mitra. All four say the experience has been rewarding.

Michael Howard and his wife, Marla, did not know what to expect several years ago when they began considering hosting foreign exchange students.

As their third year of welcoming students into their home comes to a close — and the fourth year begins — the experience has been better than they could have imagined.

"You love them like your own kids," Michael Howard said. "They become part of your family. We like to say family is not defined by DNA."

During the school year that just ended, the Howards hosted two students: Silvia Ibrahim from Egypt and Ava Mitra of Bangladesh. Both said they joined the exchange program because they wanted to explore a new culture and understand how people from a different country live.

They agreed that their time in Park City has lived up to their expectations. They've been blown away by visiting some of America's most treasured places, like Disneyland and Yellowstone National Park, but the little things have also been fascinating. Neither had ever used a seatbelt in a car, for instance, and both were stunned the first time they used a dishwasher.

"My experience has been great," Ibrahim said. "I have done a lot of new things. I can say my life has changed this year. I didn't realize how much I changed until now at the end. It will be so different when I go back."

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One of the most jarring things for both students was the size of Park City High School. Compared to their small schools at home, walking the halls felt like stepping into a cathedral. It took some time to figure out how to navigate the school between classes.

"When I came to Park City High School and just the high school had, like, 1,000 kids, it was very overwhelming," Mitra said. "In Bangladesh, my school is just a building and all your classes are in that building. Park City High's library is, like, four times bigger than any room I'd ever seen. It was a shock, but a good kind of shock."

But more than just a large building, Park City High School proved to be a welcoming pace for both Mitra and Ibrahim. They said the teachers and students immediately embraced them, and they quickly forged strong friendships with their peers — most of whom were curious to learn about Mitra and Ibrahim's home countries.

"The students were so excited to know about my culture and to talk with me," she said. "They asked me to write in my language and teach them stuff from my country."

For Ibrahim, though, her time in Park City has come to a close, as she was scheduled to travel back to Egypt on Monday. Mitra, however, will stay with the Howards through the summer and another school year due to the threat of violence in her home country.

She didn't plan to stay so long when she first came to Park City in 2015, but after an attack by the Islamic State (known as ISIS) threatened her school and her church in Bangladesh, she quickly returned.

"My mom thought that it was very unsafe for me to continue going to school there," said Mitra, who attended Park City High School her first year but transferred to the private school Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City to comply with her visa. "So she was hoping that there would be a way for me to come back."

For their part, the Howards were delighted to have Mitra back for a longer stay. Having her and Ibrahim — as well as a prior exchange student from France — join their family has enriched their lives. And it's also strengthened their belief in the importance of sharing cultures. Marla Howard noted how the students are, ultimately, very much like their American counterparts in many ways.

Michael Howard added that the presence of students like Mitra and Ibrahim strengthens the community, which benefits from being exposed to other cultures and ways of life.

"Having these kids in the community, when they talk about their culture and everything, I think it breaks down the walls and breaks down the barriers," he said. "It leads to greater understanding, and with greater understanding comes more opportunities for peace and exchange and makes the world a better place."

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