For high school seniors, graduation season comes with plenty of life changes attached.

But for Worthington Kilbourne senior Sandro Mikelashvili, that change includes a 6,000-mile trip.

Mikelashvili, 17, grew up in the Eurasian republic of Georgia but spent his senior year in Worthington as an exchange student. He will graduate with other Worthington students May 20.

But when he does, he'll have had a much different senior year than his peers.

"Being an exchange student is a life-changing experience," he said in an email. "You leave your country and travel to another part of the world where nobody knows your background. Because of that, I wanted to challenge myself to see how I could live out of my comfort zones and experience everything that I wasn't able to do back in Georgia. An exchange year changes a person a lot."

Mikelashvili came to America with the help of PAX – Program of Academic Exchange, an organization that sends exchange students all over the world.

He was part of PAX's Future Leaders Exchange program which, according to its website, "promotes mutual understanding by providing high school students from Eurasia with the opportunity to live with American host families and attend U.S. high schools."

After writing multiple essays and filling out applications, Mikelashvili said, he was chosen as one of 80 Georgian students to come to America.

For Worthington Schools, exchange students are somewhat of a rarity.

District spokeswoman Vicki Gnezda said five seats at Worthington Kilbourne and Thomas Worthington high schools always are reserved for exchange students, and three more are held at the Linworth Alternative Program.

Worthington Kilbourne and Thomas Worthington both had five exchange students this academic year, she said.

In addition, Gnezda said, students going the other direction is even more rare.

"We do not have many, if any, students that participate in an exchange program before graduating due to graduation requirements," she said.

Mikelashvili said living in a new country was a challenge, but one he was thrilled to face.

He said one of his immediate challenges was "having a ride everywhere."

"In America it is impossible to live unless you have a car," he said. "In my home country, I always used to walk everywhere because all buildings are close to each other."

Small adjustments like that made the transition difficult, but Mikelashvili learned to cope with those differences over the past year, he said.

"Adjusting to a new culture is a hard thing," he said. "You need to think that it is not better, not worse, just different. There are many things in America that are different from Georgian culture."

Gnezda said district leaders are well aware of those difficulties and guidance counselors and host families are the keys to easing the adjustment.

"Our counselors at the high schools work with exchange students and their host families to create a schedule and provide other information that the students may need to have a successful year," she said.

Although Mikelashvili said he has been working on being independent "since I was a kid," he credited those around him – both in America and in Georgia – for helping him make it through.

"Without (help from) my family, teachers and friends, it would be impossible to achieve what I have already achieved," he said. "They did me a big favor; they put effort to help me become a more successful person than I used to be. I am thankful to everybody who supports me and believes I can make my dreams come true."

Gnezda said the district doesn't just see students like Mikelashvili as someone they need to help but as someone who can contribute to the schools, as well.

"Exchange students can have a big impact on our Worthington community by bringing unique perspectives from their country," she said. "Our hope is that the student leaves at the end of the year rich with experiences and relationships that they take home with them."

For Mikelashvili, that's certainly been the case.

In lieu of one particularly good story from his time in America, he called his entire trip "a good story" and said every day was "a challenge full of great adventures."

He said it would be a "privilege to be an ambassador" of the United States when he returns to Georgia and he is excited to share what he's learned and how he's changed.

"Being an exchange student is a life-changing experience," he said. "You leave your country and travel to another part of the world where nobody knows your background. Because of that, I wanted to challenge myself to see how I could live out of my comfort zones and experience everything that I wasn't able to do back in Georgia.

"An exchange year changes a person a lot."

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