From Belarus, with love

Foreign-exchange students say they love the open homes and hearts of Tulare County residents


Almost a month into Oksana Kulikova's first visit to the United States, the 16-year-old from Belarus is raving about the lakes and the majestic mountains of Tulare County.

But more fascinating still are the people, she says.

"There are so many smiling faces," she said. "People here greet you on the street."

Kulikova is one of 15 foreign-exchange students from the former Soviet republic spending a month in Visalia through World Link Inc. The program gives the students the opportunity to soak up American culture and experience life in a democratic society, said state coordinator Adina Escarsega of Visalia.

Belarusian students used to take part in a yearlong program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Because of the strained relations between Belarus and the United States, however, the program was suspended three years ago, then restored with a one-month limit.

Escarsega and other host families plan to pack a lot into that time. The students will visit Hollywood, Disneyland, Universal Studios, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and other tourist destinations.

The students got a sampling of America's pastime, attending a Visalia Oaks baseball game.

"It was exciting," said Tatyana Chernyuk, 15. "We don't have that sport in our country."

When not sightseeing the students perform community service. Recently they helped out with a summer camp run by Neighborhood Church at Houston Elementary School, playing games with campers and helping with art projects.

Volunteerism is something new for Constantine Rassafonov, 15.

"We don't do this back in our country," he said. "I think is great. I liked working with the children."

Natasha Makeyeva, 15, agreed that volunteering isn't widely practiced in Belarus. But she plans to spread the word about her experience to friends and family at home.

"It's really fun," she said. "This is a really good experience, spending time here with the children."

The students also have gotten a chance to explore Visalia, visiting malls, coffee shops and restaurants. Serge Yaskevich, 16, said he was impressed by how many happy people he saw.

In his country, he said, people are more serious.

"People don't have much to smile about," he said. "Life is more complicated."

When they're not out on the town, the students get to relax at home with their host families. They sunbathe. They write in journals.

For Kulikova, free time is spent lying on the couch, watching classic American films like "Gone With the Wind." For the first time, she said, she was able to hear Clark Gable's famous closing line - "Frankly, my dear ..." - as it was originally spoken.

"I've been wanting to hear the phrase in English," she said. "That way I knew it was his voice."

The students arrived June 28 and will return to Belarus Aug. 3. Kulikova said she can't wait to tell her loved ones about her American experiences - and show off her Californian tan.

"The people here are so different," she said. "They're free to be themselves. I hope to come back some day."