SALEM – Four years ago, Satian Preamjaisanchat – who goes by the American name of David – first came to the Roanoke Valley as a foreign exchange student when he was in high school.
Now he has returned, this time to fulfill his dream of attending college in the United States. His plan is “to become a music pastor so I can go back to Chiang Mai to help my mother run the orphanage.”
First, though, he has to improve his English language skills, and so David is studying English as a Second Language at National College’s Roanoke Valley Campus in Salem.
He has known his host family since he was 15, and calls Pat Counts “Dad,” his wife Kristeen “Mom.” Their daughter, Sara, is his sister. Pat Counts is Salem Fire & Emergency Medical Services Chief.
Most of the international students in the National College ESL program who live with host families didn’t know each other since coming to the college to study.
Lena Gunville, a host family specialist at National, her husband and sons are sharing their Cave Spring home with Anas Alazaam from Saudi Arabia.
“He moved in just after Christmas and he’s so much part of the family now,” said Gunville, whose husband Ken is director of finance at National. “He goes everywhere with us, to soccer tournaments, for a week camping at the lake. This summer we are planning a trip so Anas can experience more of the United States,” she added.
Their sons are Cave Spring High School students Kyle, 17, and Travis, 15. They also have two grown sons, 22-year-old Evan who is a fashion photographer in New York City, and Collin, a 20-year-old in Phoenix.
Anas has just started studying Level 6 ESL courses at National College, Gunville said. The program goes through levels 1-6.
National is looking for host families for other students. Families should have a private bedroom for the student and access to a bathroom, and mainly, “a willingness to share their culture with the student,” said ESL Director Peter Laws. “Our best referrals come from people who are already enjoying being a host family,” he said. “You don’t have to make a long-term commitment. You can be a host for as long as eight weeks.”
David is now taking Level 6 at National College for the second time. Two weeks ago he took the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which was given in Lynchburg. David was crushed to learn he didn’t pass. He has a goal, though, and is certain he can work hard enough to pass the test.
Dad Pat Counts said this week, “David’s determination tells him that he will pass TOEFL. Virginia Western Community College will be next on his list.”
Also on David’s list is getting a driver’s license.
“In Thailand, we are adults when we reach 18, because I can get a driver’s license there. You will be able to do everything without your parents when you turn 20,” he added.
He showed his international license – which looks much like a passport – but which is not accepted in Virginia.
Even though he speaks English every day with his Salem family, David says the program at National College has helped improve his fluency and understanding.
“It gives me practice. The teachers here are very nice, and very patient, very kind to us,” he said, referring to other ESL students. The five students in class with him last term were from Saudi Arabia, he said. Other students are from South America, Mongolia and Korea, he recalled.
His mother, Tutu, is the Thailand director of Asia’s Hope Foundation Orphanage. For the past six years, she has collected and cared for about 200 orphans from different Northern Thailand tribes. Their fathers either died from illness or accidents and their mothers are dead or cannot care for the children because of drugs.
“I just want to let my mom have a rest,” said her son, who has two older brothers.
The Counts family met David and Tutu when they traveled to Thailand in 2006 when they did volunteer mission work at the orphanage with former Salem Church of Christ Pastor Mike Flinchum. Flinchum is now in Thailand doing evangelistic work full time.
National College is looking for host families for other students. Families should have a private bedroom for the student and access to a bathroom, and mainly, “a willingness to share their culture with the student,” said ESL Director Peter Laws. “Our best referrals come from people who are already enjoying being a host family,” he said. “You don’t have to make a long-term commitment. You can be a host for as long as eight weeks.”
There is a stipend for host families, about $500, Laws said. Some families share meals with their student, he said, and students compensate them for groceries. Students are responsible for their own food.
Pat Counts encourages other people to consider hosting ESL students. “I would recommend it to anyone who has the desire to reach out to these students who are so far away from home. It’s a very rewarding experience to be able to share cultures with those from other countries.”
And David added of his experience, “It feels like home here.”
And Counts described his Thai son this way: “He puts joy in our family.”
To see more about the orphanage and the children David’s mother cares for, watch YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CeWmvIrQpU.