International Cultural Exchange Services (ICES) has named Ivona Vanekova, 17, as the ICES Student of the Month for April. Ivona is from Prievidza, Slovakia and is living with the Ritter family in Alderson and attending Greenbrier East High School.
Ivona was selected from over 600 high school exchange students who came to the U.S. through ICES this school year. Students come to promote cultural understanding and learn American culture by living with an American host family and attending a local high school. Each month, ICES selects one student who is excelling on program and embodies the spirit of youth exchange.
Ivona was nominated by her Local Coordinator, Teresa Kelly, who states: “Ivona is an exceptional young lady. She is very respectful, follows the rules and asks questions if she is unsure of something. When [I’m] checking in with her, Ivona always asks me how I am doing. She has a really big heart and loves to smile. She has excellent grades and loves to try new things. She loves her host family as her own, and I know in my heart they will always be a part of each other’s lives.”
Ivona agrees and says her host family is amazing. She’s thrilled that they have taken her so many places – Las Vegas, Arizona, Ohio, and Kentucky to name a few – and more fun trips are planned in her remaining months on program. Other family adventures together include roller skating, visiting a trampoline park, having a bonfire, and going bowling. Ivona simply loves spending time with them, and among her favorite memories are simple things such as playing cards at home in the evening, walking the dogs, and having her host dad take her for a ride on his 4-wheeler.
Apparently, the feeling is mutual. Host mom, Megan, says, “To say that we hit the lotto with this girl is an understatement! Ivona has been such an integral part of our life since we brought her home last November. She is always willing to try something new even if she’s scared or nervous. She is dedicated to school and gets her work done and is always willing to help her host sister and brother if needed. She jumps in and helps with chores without asking and helps with the animals. Her desire to be a part of the family has her doing things above and beyond anything that is expected of her.”
Ivona has integrated well into school life too. She finds the academics easier than in Slovakia, and she gets A’s in most of her classes. Her classmates are friendly and welcoming, and she’s been pleasantly surprised by how helpful the teachers are. “They are going to help you, they are going to ask if you need help, and help you with assignments. In my country, teachers would never do that.”
Extra-curricular activities have been a fun way for Ivona to get involved in school life and make friends. She had a blast being on the volleyball team in the fall and is still friends with many of her teammates. More recently, she has joined the track team at the urging of host sister, Gabby, who is also on the team.
Being an exchange student is all about cultural differences, and Ivona has enjoyed experiencing many of the things the United States is known for. She was delighted to celebrate Thanksgiving for the first time ever. She said, “It was amazing – a lot of food, and everything was so good!”
While Ivona does celebrate Christmas in Slovakia, the traditions are very different here. Opening presents on Christmas morning – instead of Christmas Eve – was a brandnew experience. “It was pretty cool. Everybody wakes up and opens presents and stuff… it was fun!”
Coming from a big city, Ivona finds life in her small West Virginia town to be different, but nice. She enjoys the quietness, the beauty, and the people – and the fact that it’s much more open than her hometown, which is still mostly shut down.
Ivona has learned much during her exchange year. In addition to improving her English, she’s also become more independent and learned to communicate effectively. She explains, “If I have a problem, I have to talk about it.”
Another surprising change is that Ivona says she’s become more appreciative. She didn’t expect to miss her family as much as she does, and she feels the distance has actually strengthened her relationship with them. “I’ve learned to appreciate more things, like what my mom does for me.”
When asked what advice she would give to a family who’s considering hosting an exchange student, Ivona says, “Don’t be afraid to take somebody. It’s a good experience, not only for the student, but also for the host family.”
As the student of the month, Ivona will receive an ICES T-shirt, a $100 Visa gift card, and a letter of commendation from ICES President, John Crist.