We recently interviewed PhDr. Mária Sýkorová, the Co-Founder of Elite Language Center’s partner, International Cultural Education Slovakia, s.r.o. (ICESlovakia). ICESlovakia specializes in high school exchange programs for Slovak students wishing to experience an immersive educational experience in the USA. You can learn more about ICESlovakia at www.iceslovakia.sk
How and why did you start your high school student exchange business?
We started back in 1994 when my husband and I were introduced to the President of International Cultural Exchange Services (ICES) in the USA, Mr. John Crist. He had been looking for new partners around the world for his newly-established non-profit organization that he founded in 1991, together with a team experienced in student exchange. We saw this as a great opportunity for Slovak students to experience life in the US under a system that many students from other countries around the world had benefited from. Therefore, we established the initial set up of the program and chaperoned 11 students to Atlanta, Georgia in August 1995, from where they departed to various states for their experience of a lifetime. Since then, many things have changed in the way we all live our lives, but we still help large groups of students every year to experience a very special year of their life.
Who is eligible for your program?
Our program is suited for students who are looking for something new and different, who are interested in the USA and other cultures, who have positive thinking and are adaptable because they will live with a host family. Students need to be 15 – 18.5 years old at the time of their departure to the USA, and must still be in high school. The type of high school attended in Slovakia is not relevant… it can be a “gymnazium”, “stredna odborna skola”, “obchodna akademia”, etc. At the time of their application to the program, they are usually starting their first or second (quinta or sexta) high school year in Slovakia. All students must be good students in Slovakia and have a sufficient command of the English language to enable them to function well in an English-speaking academic and community environment. We will test their English skills as well as interview and screen them for maturity, good physical and emotional health, good character, and an ability to derive maximum benefit from the program experience.
How much does it cost?
This is probably the cheapest possible way to stay in another country and experience the American culture first-hand – by living with real Americans. Probably never after the age of 18 years will someone have an opportunity to live with a family in a different country. The program fee for the academic year stay (10 months) is from around €6,500, which includes student insurance for the entire stay. This fee does not include the cost of the flight ticket, monthly pocket money of approx. $300 – $400 USD, visa fees, and a few other related costs, which would altogether be around €10,000 – €11.000 for the 10 months. We ensure that the funds that parents spend on their children’s education are the best investment.
Do students get academic credit for their studies?
Students study at accredited high schools in the USA which are registered and authorized by the US government to accept foreign exchange students. Here at home in Slovakia, our students request an interruption of their studies at their Slovak high school for the duration of their program in the USA. While in the USA, the students themselves select which subjects they want to study. However, the American school system differs quite a bit, and it is rarely possible to fully match their Slovak curriculum. On the other hand, they will most likely have an opportunity to experience some completely different and interesting subjects like Psychology, Photography, Contemporary Studies, Digital Media, Advertising, Water Science, Creative Writing, Theater, Art, and many others. The availability of the courses is however dependent on the specific school where the student will be placed. Upon their return back home, they will agree with the director of their Slovak school about the next steps. In most cases, it means that the students are requested to pass exams from a few subjects, usually Slovak language and History, as well as their graduation subjects. By doing so, they earn academic credit to continue with their “original” class to the next grade.
How many students have you placed?
We have worked with high school exchange students in the United States for more than 23 years, with our reliable permanent US partner organization ICES. They have accepted and placed all of our 20-30 students every year since 1995, which makes more than 500 members of our “ICESlovakia family”. We have many clients – families that have sent all of their children to study in the USA with us.
Where can the students study?
Students are placed anywhere and everywhere around the USA, from Florida to Alaska, from California to New York or Maine, unless they have a particular preference which we can satisfy as a premium service at an additional cost. Our US partner organization ICES has their network of local coordinators in almost all 50 US states, including Hawaii. Local coordinators work directly with the host families and schools in the field and not only identify suitable host families and ensure acceptance to high school, but also provide year-long support and advice to students and host families, even in situations where resolution of open issues is necessary. Only host families that live within a school district that accepts exchange students can become a host family. Of all the relationships students will form over the course of this program, the closest and most meaningful will be the one that develops between students and their host family. ICES local coordinators strive to place students into families and communities that will provide them with opportunities to get involved in their passions and hobbies (guaranteed in case a premium service in selected). Over the last few years, we have seen an increasing number of students whom we are helping to spend their stay in a host family that they already know. This is because it is impossible for them to get acceptance to a US high school as an individual without an agency. We also offer the possibility to study at a private school (while living in a host family) or dormitory school programs. However, these options are financially a lot more demanding.
Anything else prospective students should know?
After completing our US exchange program, our students are well-prepared for their future life, feel more self-confident, have mastered English at a high level, and are more communicative and mature. Many of them become successful and well-known in their field of expertise. Quite often it was during their studies in the USA where they faced various situations or people that have shown them the various directions that they can take in their lives, including their future field of study. We keep a friendly relationship with many of our former students, whether on social groups or by meeting them in person at various events organized by the US Embassy, the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), or others.
Photo: AmCham Slovakia, Archive.