America is a big place, but exchange student Anatoliy Vyshnyakov has seen a lot of it in the eight months he's been here.
Vyshnyakov, who is from the Ukraine, is staying with Payson residents Del and Elaine Bohlmeyer while attending Payson High School this year. The 16-year-old recently returned from Washington D.C., the latest of several major trips he's taken since arriving in the U.S. last August.
Of 1,400 exchange students from former Soviet bloc countries, Vyshnyakov was one of just 126 selected to spend a week in the nation's capital. He was chosen based on recommendations from his PHS teachers and an essay he wrote.
"I was surprised he was selected because he was very honest in his essay and he disagreed with some things that are going on in government today," Del Bohlmeyer said. Specifically, Vyshnyakov questioned whether the U.S. might not spread democracy more effectively by using the money spent on the war in Iraq on education programs.
While the White House and Pentagon were off limits during his visit, it was a whirlwind week for Vyshnyakov and his fellow Soviet bloc students.
"We went by bus from one place to another -- to five or six places each day," he said "--memorials, museums, the Capitol, Senate and House buildings. We even saw a performance at Ford Theater."
Vyshnyakov was especially impressed by the Library of Congress.
"The building is so beautiful," he said.
The students also had the opportunity to visit the congressional offices of the elected representatives of the states where they're staying, participated in a briefing at the State Department, and asked questions of a panel of U.S. leaders on C-Span.
But as much as there was to see and do in D.C., it wasn't the biggest American city Vyshnyakov has visited since he arrived in the U.S. That would be Los Angeles, one of the places the Bohlmeyers have taken him in their crusade to show him as much of the country as possible.
"We took him to California for October break," Bohlmeyer said. "We wanted him to see California -- Disneyland, Sea World."
While in San Diego Vyshnyakov also visited the zoo and the wild animal park, but Sea World was his favorite.
"He insisted on sitting in the front row at every show at Sea World," Bohlmeyer said. "We got wet."
During yet another trip Christmas break, the Bohlmeyers gave Vyshnyakov a close-up look at America's heartland. "I have a daughter in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and relatives in Nebraska and Missouri, so we drove through 10 states," Bohlmeyer said.
Up next is a hiking trip down to Havasupai, and then in May the trio will return to the Midwest. "I have my 50th class reunion back in Nebraska, so we'll retrace a lot of those same places we saw over the holidays when it's green" Bohlmeyer said.
But the real value of the various exchange programs that bring foreign students to the United States is the opportunity to live with a typical American family and enjoy a one-on-one relationship that promotes both friendship and understanding. That's a big responsibility for the host family, especially one whose children are grown and gone.
"Our daughters are 39 and 43," Bohlmeyer said. "We hadn't had a teenager in the house in over 20 years."
When the Bohlmeyers were approached about being hosts, their first reaction was negative.
"It was, ‘No, I don't want to do that,'" Bohlmeyer said. "Then we got talking about it, and I never had a boy. We just decided it might be an exciting thing to do, and it certainly has been better than that."
In fact, Bohlmeyer and Vyshnyakov have forged a close bond -- one based on mutual respect and common interests.
"He's been so helpful to me in so many ways around the place," Bohlmeyer said. "I bought a house and we're fixing it up and a lot of those jobs take two people. He's been really a great help and he makes a little extra money from it as well."
Vyshnyakov returns to the Ukraine on June 15. Next year he will attend the University of Kiev, majoring in international business.
While his travels in America will certainly create lasting memories, what is likely to end up meaning the most to him is the friendship of the couple that took him into their home and made sure his stay in the United States was the experience of a lifetime.
But ask Bohlmeyer if he didn't get as much in return, and he answers enthusiastically and without hesitation, "Oh absolutely."