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Ukrainian 'tour guide' stays with Hastings family

Have you ever wanted to travel to another country, but just cannot do it? Then hosting a foreign exchange student might be something for you to consider. Roman Polishchuk from Ukraine has been his country's "tour guide" for Curt and Sharon Aaseng this past school year.

"We feel like we have been on a vacation to Ukraine these past 10 months," Sharon said. "Roman has been a constant ambassador for Ukraine while he's been with us, expanding our knowledge of Ukraine, whether that means explaining the differences between the two countries, showing us videos of Ukraine online, or showing us parts of Ukrainian culture that he is particularly proud of. A big surprise for me was hearing Roman's favorite trance music for the first time (hugely popular there now) and really enjoying it."

The decision to host a student felt completely comfortable to both Aasengs.

"Being empty-nesters, Curt and I had decided last year to host an exchange student, having hosted four other students for short periods of time in the past and enjoying those experiences," Sharon said. "Since we both speak Norwegian and I know a little French, we had originally thought of targeting students with those languages. However, the AFS representative in Hastings, Anne Mellesmoen, gave us a stack of short profiles of different students, then some essays to read, and Curt and I both agreed that Roman was our top choice. Roman's information appealed to us because he wrote about his wide variety of interests. We also learned, later, that he was part of the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) program, which is funded by the U.S. government to promote cultural understanding with countries that were part of the former Soviet Union. He was one of 47,000 FLEX applicants undergoing a lengthy process of paperwork and multiple interviews before being one of the 800 students chosen."

Roman has described this as feeling like he won the lottery, that he was able to come to America as a FLEX student.

Roman arrived in Minnesota in early August 2012. From the start, he was easy to talk to and understand, had a great sense of humor, and was very open to any activity proposed. One of the first things he did in Hastings was to attend a Cruise-In with his host parents. He loved seeing all the cars displayed, and even got a ride in the antique car of Hastings teen David Pochardt.

Roman comes from a small village. Liublynets has a population of a few thousand, and it is near the much larger city of Kovel, in northwestern Ukraine near the Polish border. His family consists of father Oleksandr, mother Svitlana, and older brothers Stas, who is married, and Dima.

He has attended Hastings High School as a junior. Roman pointed out the differences between here and home.

"At my school, there are students of all ages in the same building. Most teachers are Soviet-trained, so young teachers are not common. The teachers are really strict and they give us lots of homework, much more than they do here. We don't have many computers and no smart boards, but the education standards are very high. We concentrate on subjects like history, mathematics and geography. I wear a suit to school. Because it's a short walk to my family's apartment, I go home for lunch. The school day goes from 8:30 a.m. to anywhere from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. It's been fun to try classes here that we don't have at home, like photography. I've had some really nice teachers here at Hastings. If Mr. Lutz was a teacher at my school in Ukraine, he would be the best teacher ever. And everyone would want to take ceramics with Mr. Casperson."

Extra-curricular activities like sports and musical groups are not offered in Ukraine. Roman participated in soccer, a school play and tennis here at HHS.

"At home, even though we don't have sports teams after school, everyone plays soccer. You really live for soccer, like in other countries in Europe. My friends and I play soccer whenever we can. Even if we only have five minutes between classes, we go out and kick a ball around. We usually play on a short field with just a few guys. Ukraine has some really great teams and players, like Andriy Shevchenko."

With all the options of extra-curricular activities, part-time jobs, and volunteer opportunities, Roman has seen how busy American teenagers are. Perhaps that is the biggest difference he has noticed.

"Where I'm from, I'm with my friends every day. In Ukraine, people really make time for their friends. If you have something you want to do, and your friend needs you, what is the question? You go to your friend. If he needs help, then help him."

Even though Roman has eaten occasionally at McDonalds and other restaurants while here, he is more used to home-cooking every day. Restaurant meals are a rare treat. His family owns a garden plot the size of a football field where they grow potatoes, carrots and other vegetables to use throughout the year. They don't generally buy vegetables at the store. They often buy directly from farmers, things like eggs and dairy foods. Meat is not eaten very often. Home-canning is done on a regular basis.

Ukrainian foods include borshch, a soup made with beets and other vegetables; varenyky, dumplings filled with potatoes, similar to Polish pierogies; and mlynci, crepes filled with cheese and blueberries or poppy seeds. Curt and Sharon have been treated to these and other foods made by Roman from his family's recipes. For Ukrainian Orthodox Easter, which was May 5, Roman made sure that the Aasengs tried paska, a special bread made with sweet dough.

For Orthodox Easter at home, the church service starts at 10 p.m. Saturday and goes until 5 a.m. Easter morning. The congregation stands for virtually the entire time. Food is brought in baskets to the church to be blessed. At home, Roman says, his family colors 100 to 150 eggs, giving about 50 to family and friends and eating the rest themselves.

When he returns home May 15, Roman will prepare to take his exams in early June and await the results so he can enter a Ukrainian university this fall. His year of school in the U.S. will not be credited, as is the case for many students who come to America for high school.

Roman would like to study international business and diplomacy as he continues his education. His dream would be to study at an American university, but with very limited finances back home, he would need a generous scholarship to do this.

For Curt and Sharon, Roman has been the perfect match for them as their exchange student. As Sharon explained her feelings as a host parent: "It's not like you are expected to be a seeing-eye dog for your student. You're not trying to help them compensate for something they've lost or are missing. It's more like you're a police dog - you are put together with a partner, and you come to realize that you would defend that courageous officer with your life."

(If anyone is interested in hosting an exchange student, go to for more information.)