CHAMPLAIN - When Ghizlane Megout came to the U.S. from Morocco, she didn't know what to expect.
The 17-year-old junior came to the Northeastern Clinton Central School District in August as part of the AYUSA International student exchange program, marking the first time she had ever stepped foot onto American soil. In fact, it was the first time she'd ever left Africa.
"I thought this school would be crazy from the American movies I've seen, but when I came here it wasn't like I thought it would be at all," she said.
Megout thought her experience at NCCS would most be like the 2004 movie "Mean Girls," starring Lindsey Lohan and Rachel McAdams, in which Lohan's character was considered an outcast for being the new girl in school.
"She was expecting all this girl-bashing and cat fights and telling me a lot of international students think American schools are like that. It's not that bad, but it's got its moments," said senior Ashley Turner, whose family Megout has been staying with she since arrived.
In her first weeks of school, Megout's fears were put to rest but she still found herself struggling to fit in. Under Ashley Turner's wing, she was able to get acclimated to her new surroundings, making new friends and feeling more comfortable in social situations.
"It was hard at first because you feel like you're alone and that you're weird," admitted Megout. "And, it's been hard sometimes because I have never been separated from my family. It was my first time that I have been that far from them."
Through the support of her newfound friends, her teachers and her host family, Megout - who became affectionately nicknamed "Izzy" - eventually came out of her shell.
"I just decided I needed to stop being so emotional. I'm still not 100 percent comfortable, but more like 70-80 percent," Megout said with a laugh.
"Over time, we've become like real family. We talk, we fight. We're like real sisters," Ashley Turner said as the two shared another laugh.
Aside from the Turner family home, the two shared the bond of never before having a sister. Ashley Turner grew up with an older brother, while Megout grew up with two.
"If I were ever to go to the movies with my brother, I could never go to a chick flick with him. It'd always be like an action or horror movie," said Ashley Turner. "With Izzy, I can do that. I can go to a chick flick or go shopping ... It's nice."
"Ashley really has been like a sister to me," said Megout.
Having Megout in their home has also been a new experience for Ashley Turner's father, Peter Turner, who also considered Megout to be like another daughter. Just as the Turners have received an education on Moroccan culture, religion and even cuisine, they've taken great joy introducing Megout to American customs, holidays and food, he said.
"It was fun watching Izzy experience Halloween, Christmas and the prom for the first time," he said. "It is amazing how many things we take for granted until we have to explain our culture to someone else."
"It has been an interesting and worthwhile experience and I would encourage others to try it," added Peter Turner, who also serves as the school district's superintendent.
The student exchange program is open to students wishing to travel abroad and for families interested in hosting students from other countries, said high school principal Stephen E. Gratto.
"We'd really like to encourage more families to offer to be host families," said Gratto. "We think it's another good way to educate our students and we're really hoping to build up the program."
"It's definitely a great opportunity for host families because you learn more about another culture and get a better understanding for it," said Ashley Turner. "After going the whole year with someone else living in your house, when she leaves, it's going to feel like a part of our family has left."
"It's definitely going to be a hard adjustment going back to normal because, right now, this is normal," she added.
"It's really been a good experience to make me stronger and more independent," said Megout. "I think this experience has changed me a lot for the better."
For more information about the AYUSA International student exchange program, particularly regarding becoming a host family, contact Gratto at the school, 298-8638.