Xiaochen Wang, 20, left China for the first time in August and traveled halfway around the world to come to Elgin Community College. She's far from home but not alone.
Wang and Rong Rong, 21, are students at Shanxi Normal University in China, and both came to ECC for the fall semester as the college's first exchange students in a new Homestay program. Wang will be leaving after her finals, but Rong plans to extend her stay through the spring semester.
Though she arrived speaking English very well, Rong hopes to master the language with the extra time of a second semester. She'll also get more time to learn about the culture here -- to add to the understanding she has already developed of the values, eating habits, television preferences and priorities of people in the area.
But Rong has made sure the cultural exchange goes both ways. She is the secretary of the Chinese Student Club and has participated in international-themed events, sharing details of her life in China.
"I think that's also my responsibility to be an exchange student," Rong said. "I want to promote our culture."
Wang is in the Chinese Student Club as well. She said she was surprised by the international character of the college and has enjoyed meeting others who speak English as their second languages. While she is sticking to her original plan and heading back to China after Christmas, Wang is already thinking about coming back to the United States for her master's degree in business and hopes to attend a university in the Chicago area.
She called the last few months the most memorable in her life.
Elizabeth Reyes, director of ECC's Intensive English Program, is hosting both Rong and Wang for the semester and plans to stay involved in the Homestay program. Reyes grew up in a family that hosted people from a variety of countries, including Russia, Yugoslavia, China, India, Tibet, Somalia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. She and her husband, Robert, of St. Charles, are continuing the tradition with ECC students.
Reyes said host families get a lot out of opening their homes to travelers and seeing their normal routines or holiday celebrations through different eyes. Reyes will continue to host Rong through the rest of the academic year but hopes the program grows and other families get involved in future semesters.
"We're really looking forward to creating a community where we have more activities we can do with other Homestay families," Reyes said.