Vsevolod (Sava) Ganinets, 16, in every sense, is a member of the family at the McGuire-Johnson household here in Hastings. They do a number of things together, including studying, eating meals, participating in recreational activities and going on vacations. Spring break, for example, was spent in Florida.

There is a real bond among the family members, even though Sava is only "visiting" for several months from his home country of Kazakhstan, near Russia, as part of the ASSE International Student Exchange Program.

Rosalind McGuire has been an adult volunteer representative for the program in the area when she connected with Sava earlier this year. He has been staying with another family in Dakota County, but moved to the Hastings home in January.

This is Sava's first trip to this country - he had heard about the exchange program through friends.

"For the last five years, my friends have been coming here to America and I hear about it from them," he said. "Through what is called the flex program, I can come on a scholarship."

That means he does not have to pay his expenses and is provided "pocket" money for his nine months here. He applied for the program, an application which involved taking written tests.

Sava and his family have been able to travel in Europe and he was interested in coming here. He also had an impression about this country.

"America is the strongest country," he said, "And people are very driven."

When students are selected for the program, they do not get to select the state they will live in for the school year. When he heard he was coming to Minnesota, Sava envisioned strong people of Irish and German heritage and cold and snow in the winter. Usually, the latter is true except for this year.

Through a friend, McGuire became involved in the program as a representative. She maintains contact with many of the exchange students in the program who are attending schools and living with host families here. There have been several field trips, including one to Valleyfair.

When Sava needed another host family, McGuire talked it over with her family, which includes high school-age daughters. They agreed to open their home.

'This has been a really good experience for us," said McGuire. "The kids have learned a lot about the program and Sava."

When Sava did transfer to Hastings High School in January, Principal Mike Johnson and the staff were very helpful in getting him orientated with the school, McGuire said.

"They were so accommodating," she said.

This is much bigger school for him, Sava said.

"At home, I go to private school and they have elementary, middle school and high school all together," he said. "We wear uniforms, too."

Sava learned English with the help of a mentor and speaks it well. He admitted though, he does have more difficulty with the classes like English literature. Physics and math are his favorite - he is considering a career in engineering.

"Everyone has been very friendly," he said.

He is currently participating in track every day and enjoys it. He will attend the prom in several weeks.

As part of participating in the program, Sava is required to fulfill 50 hours of community service. He completed a part of that requirement last week when he and some of his friends helped at Feed My Starving Children in Eagan.

This year has been a good experience for Sava. When he returns to Kazakhstan next month, it will be with some reluctance. He looks forward to going home to see his family, but will miss his new one here in Hastings.

"I'm so proud of him," said McGuire.

The ASSE International is a non-profit, tax-exempt public organization. It is officially designated as an exchange visitor program by the United States Department of State.

McGuire said the program seeks host families for boys and girls, ages 15 to 18, who come from Europe, Asia, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. All students are screened and qualified by ASSE. Academic year, semester, shorter term and summer vacations programs are available.

More information is available by contacting McGuire at 651-274-8869 or visiting www.assehosts.com.