By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald
COPPERAS COVE - Joel Toivainen is enjoying life in Texas.
"It's not bad here, much warmer than where I'm from," he joked as he reclined on a couch in a T-shirt, shorts and tall cowboy boots.
Toivainen is from Helsinki, Finland, and is a senior at Copperas Cove High School, taking part in a foreign exchange student program.
"My brother came (to Cove), and I wanted to come experience America, too," said Toivainen, a 17-year-old who has been attending classes at the high school since August 2011. "You hear a lot about Texas, and I wanted to see what that was like."
Toivainen is one of three exchange students staying with the same host, and is one of two who will return home after spending one academic year at the high school.
He is also one of the 32 exchange students who have passed through the home of John Jones.
"I've been doing this for a long time, and it's great because you all end up learning something," said Jones, who hosts students through the international organization ASSE. "They are learning about American culture, and you get to learn more about them and their culture as well."
Texas statute allows students from other countries to enroll in local school districts if they are placed with a host family that resides in the district by a nationally recognized foreign exchange program.
A district can request a waiver from the state's education commissioner to limit or completely eliminate the number of students it can accept for a period of three years.
The Cove district has a waiver that caps the number of exchange students at six per high school, according to records from the Texas Education Agency. That waiver is set to expire during the 2012-13 school year.
The Killeen Independent School District has a cap of five students per high school, as does the Lampasas Independent School District. Both school districts were granted their waivers in 2009, meaning they will expire at the end of this school year.
The Belton Independent School District had a waiver that capped the limit at five students per high school, but it expired in 2010 and the agency has no record of the district reapplying.
Whatever the restrictions, program participants such as Toivainen jump at the chance to come to America, not just as a way to experience the culture, but to get valuable experience learning the English language.
"I wanted to improve my English," said Yue Su, a 17-year-old from Wuhan, China. "If I speak two languages, that can help me get a very good job."
Toivainen agreed with his housemate, Su, and said the English language reaches a lot farther than some Americans might think.
"My family travels a lot, and there are people who speak (English) in almost every country," said Jones, who is hosting a third student from Russia along with Su and Toivainen. "Even if that isn't the native language, it will help you."
While differences in culture and language sometimes separate exchange students from their American friends, Jones said the similarities between them are even more surprising.
"They are teenagers, so they all have a lot of the same likes and dislikes," he said. "They like to play video games, listen to music and hang out with their friends. There's a lot more similarities between them than there are differences."
Both Su and Toivainen said they have made good friends during their visits, and they would encourage students in their home countries to try an exchange program.
"The key is not to be shy," said Su, who said he'd like to return to America to attend college. "If you want to have fun and make friends, then you need to talk to people. You need to open your mouth and open your heart."
Contact Chris McGuinness at email@example.com or (254) 501-7568. Follow him on Twitter at ChrismKDH.