Saturday, October 24, 2009

Deaf exchange student from New Zealand spending senior year in Olathe

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Most foreign exchange students attending high school thousands of miles from home experience newcomer jitters while adjusting to their host family’s country, language and customs.

But exchange student Fallon Simchowitz from New Zealand, who is the guest for the school year of Olathe residents Ron and Kim Symansky, faces a few additional challenges.

Simchowitz, 17, is deaf and so are the Symanskys and their three children. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem because they all communicate through sign language. But sign language, like spoken language, differs from country to country and even though New Zealanders and Americans speak English, many words have different meanings and spellings.

And the differences don’t end there.

Simchowitz communicates with British Sign Language, which uses an alphabet that signs with two hands. The Symansky family communicates with American Sign Language with an alphabet that signs using one hand.

Because of the differences in the languages, Simchowitz who is a senior at Kansas State School for the Deaf has become bilingual — in sign language.

“I wasn’t very good at ASL for the first few days,” Simchowitz said recently at KSD through interpreter Lori Colwell. “But now it’s no problem at all.”

Simchowitz recently communicated with her family in New Zealand via Web camera for the first time since she arrived in August. Her new language was somewhat confusing to them.

“I’ve gotten so used to ASL, I forgot to switch back to British Sign Language,” Simchowitz said.

The Symanskys have three children under the age of 11, and Simchowitz is the first exchange student they have sponsored. Both Ron and Kim Symansky are very involved in the deaf community. Ron is an associate professor at Johnson County Community College in the interpretive training program and also teaches American Sign Language. Kim is a sensory program consultant for the Kansas State Department of Education. Her duties include ensuring that individuals with visual and/or hearing loss receive services available from the state.

Ron Symansky said having a teenager is fun and demanding.

“There are later curfews, more negotiations, less control and more shopping,” he said. “It’s preparing us for when our kids are teenagers.”

Simchowitz said that although she always has wanted to visit the United States, she didn’t know much about Kansas.

“When I told my friends I was coming to Kansas, they all teased me and said if I wanted to come home, I’d have to buy some ruby slippers and click them together,” she said.

Though Simchowitz misses her homeland and family, she loves being in this country.

“It’s wonderful here,” she said. “Deaf people are more socialized into the general culture. And the shopping is great. There are lots more fun girl clothes.”

Simchowitz, whose family in New Zealand also is deaf, has one older brother and said being part of a large family is fun — and different.

“I’m not used to being around little kids,” she said. “It’s been cool to be the older sister for a change.”

In addition to her studies at KSD, Simchowitz is involved in volleyball, basketball and cheerleading.

“I was pretty homesick at first and contacting my parents a lot,” said Simchowitz. “But I’m so busy now, it’s hard to be homesick.”

Simchowitz said there are challenges being so far away from home.

The time difference makes it tough to communicate with friends, she said. “And it’s cold here. It’s spring in New Zealand and it won’t be as cold there even later in the year.”

After graduating from high school at KSD, Simchowitz will head back to New Zealand in late June where she plans to attend a two-year technical college in her hometown of Auckland. Then she would like to attend Gaulladet University in Washington, D.C., which is one of the leading universities for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Simchowitz would like to study early childhood development with a focus on counseling and psychology.

Pam Sexton is a district representative for the American Field Service and checks periodically on foreign exchange students in the Olathe and De Soto areas.

“The Symanskys and Fallon are doing so well together,” said Sexton. “The mutual sharing of their countries and cultures is beneficial for all and what the program is all about.”

Simchowitz said her parents were nervous about her going so far away for such a long time.

“We definitely made the right choice,” said Simchowitz. “I’m developing more confidence, becoming more independent and finding out a lot about myself. I’m so glad I ended up here and so proud to be part of this family. They are wonderful.”

The foreign exchange student program is sponsored by the American Field Service and operates in 50 countries. Students live with host families and attend secondary school full time for a semester or full year. Host families are selected through personal interviews and background checks. There are 77 foreign exchange students in the Kansas City area. For information, call Brenda Stoll at 816-804-3237 or visit

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