Gathered around the Pratt family kitchen eating homemade deli meat sandwiches and grapes, Max and Yang WenTong tried bread and butter pickles for the first time at the suggestion of their host father. Their eyes lit up as they ate the salty, foreign food, and the boys even tried stuffing the pickles into their half-eaten sandwiches, to their delight.

This was just one of many new experiences the two 16-year-old students had during their first trip to the United States on their two-week cultural immersion program through SPIRAL International in Burlington.

Since 2010, SPIRAL has hosted Chinese exchange students in communities throughout New England for multi-week summer sessions as well as semesters or even years during the school term. Additionally, American students can study abroad in China through the program.

“For the New England area, cultural diversity has been a very important part of our education,” SPIRAL president Emily Guo said. “Bringing international students into our schools and the community can help with the cultural diversity.”

Guo said the program also has an incredible impact on the Chinese students’ English speaking skills, something they don’t get to practice often in their normal school day, which is often long, rigorous and focused on test-taking.

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“Before they came [to the U.S.], they all had a class in English, vocabulary, grammar, but that’s all book language,” Guo explained. “They probably never had the experience to speak to a native speaker.”

Nancy and Randy Pratt of Essex Jct. have hosted students through SPIRAL since 2013 when they filled in for Nancy’s brother and sister-in-law. This year, the Pratts hosted Max and Yang WenTong from Chengdu, China for a few days, covering for another family who couldn’t host for the entire two weeks.

Nancy Pratt said hosting the students is easy, even while working full time, because the program keeps them busy with activities at the school in the morning focused on learning English, with field trips around Vermont taking up the afternoon.

“Since I didn’t feel like I had to play tour guide, I was able to spend time in the evenings and weekend doing what I’d normally do when friends and family visit,” Nancy Pratt said. “Music, sports, games, and cooking/eating were all good ways to get them off their cell phones and help them practice their English … and have fun.”

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The Pratt family spent the weekend with Max and Yang playing card games, taking hikes, cooking meals and going mini golfing to introduce the students to staples of a Vermont lifestyle. Nancy Pratt said once she eased their fears about saying something wrong in English, the boys opened up, and communication became easier.

Not only do the Chinese students learn about American culture and improve their language skills through the exchange program, but also hosts can take away lessons from the experience, Nancy Pratt said.

“It was interesting to learn about their experiences in China and compare it to students in the U.S.,” she said. “Despite some differences, there are more similarities.”

Guo said the program is well-received by its partner schools and communities and said the Chinese students always enjoy coming to the states. Many come and don’t want to leave, she said, laughing.

The biggest challenge each year, however, is finding enough host families for the exchange students during a busy summer, Guo said. One year, the program coordinator for BFA-Fairfax High School was struggling to find enough hosts and wanted to put the program on pause.

“The community didn’t let him!” Guo exclaimed. “The community found host families for the program, and it ran.”

Nancy Pratt encourages people to try hosting exchange students through SPIRAL, as meeting and living with students from another culture can be eye-opening.

“By connecting on a personal level with people from around the world, the experience will help all involved focus on how similar people are at their core,” she said.