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Independent Italian teen travels to United States for exchange program
Gainesville family hosts high schooler in home for 10 months
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Italian Giorgio Viano, right, sits with his host family, the Leeuwenburgs, in their Gainesville home. Giorgio, right, is a foreign exchange student attending Gainesville High School. He moved in with the Leeuwenburgs —from left, Drew, Preston, Penny and Blake — last Labor Day. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Interested in being a host family?

For more information, visit the World Heritage website at, call the organization’s office at 800-888-9040 or call Jodi Kiefer at 404-234-1548.

When most people think of study abroad programs, they think of spending a few months studying a second language in a foreign country in college. Few consider committing to live with a host family for 10 months. Fewer still consider doing it while in high school.

Yet hundreds of high schoolers travel to United States alone for terms sometimes stretching up to a year. Gainesville is currently home to one such student, Giorgio Viano.

“I like to be independent,” said the 17-year-old student from Padova, Italy. “If I am 16 and can go to another country where I don’t know anybody and I just speak a little bit of the language and I can make it, I’ll be more self-confident.

“I like to meet new people, too.”

Giorgio decided to apply for a study abroad nearly two years ago when he was 15 years old. After going through the application process, he prepared to embark on a foreign adventure. But there was one problem: the program had trouble finding a host family for the 10-month commitment.

Since a host family must be in place before students can receive their visas to come to America, World Heritage Student Exchange — the program that brought Giorgio to Gainesville — began an extensive search for a willing family.

That is when Gainesville couple Drew and Penny Leeuwenburg heard about Giorgio’s predicament.

“We came home one day and we received this email from the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club with information about a foreign exchange student who was looking for a host family and one of his interests was rowing,” said Drew Leeuwenburg. “At this point, the program was down to the wire.

“They start advertising the children who were interested in coming the next year around January or February, and we got this email in mid-August. So they were throwing emails out to organizations that fit his interests.”

The Leeuwenburg’s have four children of their own, the oldest of whom is in college at the U.S. Air Force Academy, which freed up a bedroom. Coupled with the fact that Penny Leeuwenburg can speak Italian, the family decided to host Giorgio.

After getting his visa, Giorgio came to Gainesville last Labor Day weekend. At first, he was like a guest, but it didn’t take long before he was part of the family.

“It’s like an adoption,” Drew Leeuwenburg said. “At first, there is a learning curve about who you are and what you’re about. Then there comes a point when you realize this is the new family, and you start treating them as one of your own, in terms of giving them chores and having expectations of them.

“After 30 or 40 days, he’s no longer a guest.”

Since school started a few weeks prior, Giorgio began attending Gainesville High School almost immediately.

“At the beginning it was hard because of the language,” he said. “Most of the time when someone was talking to me I was like ‘yeah, yeah,’ but in my head I was thinking ‘What are you talking about?’

“But when you actually understand what people are saying, there is a lot of satisfaction.”

Two days after Giorgio arrived, he met with school officials to sign up for classes, in which his initial language barrier led to an unexpected situation.

“They sent me to the counselor, and they were asking me what classes I wanted to take,” he said. “To be honest I was randomly saying ‘yes, no, yes, no.’

“After like 20 minutes, she handed me my schedule.”

He found out later, he signed up for the high school’s Naval Junior ROTC program. Three times a week for the first few months, he was at school at 6:45 a.m. to attend the program.

Despite the challenges, he has done well in school and was recently chosen as the school’s Student of the Month.

Now, Giorgio is preparing to return to Italy. He attended prom last month and is finishing the school year, which ends later this month. His father and a friend will come visit him May 21, and the three will travel in the country before returning home.

“I don’t (know) how I’ll feel when I go back, because it’s like this big part of my life is going to be over,” Giorgio said. “On one side, it’s going to be very sad because even though I have made a lot of friends here, I know I’m not going to see many of them anymore, and that makes me pretty sad.

“But on the other side, I’m going to see my family and friends again and I’ll be back in my city.”

Currently, World Heritage has more than 300 foreign students placed in the United States. Though many will return home soon, hundreds are scheduled to come for the next school year. Many students are in need of host families.

“(Finding host families) can be hard mostly because most people don’t really know how it works to host an exchange student as part of their family,” said Jodi Kiefer, the Southeast area coordinator for the program. “So we are working hard to make people aware that they can participate and that hosting is truly as rewarding for the host family as it is for their World Heritage son or daughter.

“Nationally, we have about 200 students still needing host families, and we can place up to five in one high school.”

For more information on the program, visit, call the organization’s head office at 800-888-9040 or call Kiefer at 404-234-1548.

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