At the core of every student exchange program is the promise of new relationships that will span oceans and continents. A young adult leaves home, travels far away, lives with people they have just met, to swim in a sea of language not their own.
And they and everyone they come to know are changed just a little bit, because they learn, or are reminded, that the differences between people are small ones – a matter of culture, not humanity.
When asked what was most memorable, most enjoyed during their stay, the twelve foreign exchange students at North Crawford all answered the same. It is the people they had met, the families they had become a part of, and the friends they had made.
She enjoyed the time she spent with her host family so much, Pawanrad Kedsalak recounted hiding behind a tree to miss the school bus so she could get a ride to school from “host dad” John Anderson.
“He could see me hiding, but he still gave me a ride,” she laughed.
Pawanrad is staying with John and Deanna Anderson. She comes from the Suphan Buri province of Thailand where December and January lows run along the line of 55° F. This winter was her first experience with snow.
Coming from a similarly tropical, and altogether wetter clime is Bruna Rodriguez of Belém, Brazil.
Staying with Cecelia and Joseph O’Brien, Bruna quickly named the best part of living in rural Soldiers Grove for the better part of a year – “Loren, my best friend!”
Bruna also commented upon the safety of the region. Her home municipality has over 1.3 million residents.
“Here is safe,” she explained. At home, “you can’t go out on the streets without thinking something will happen.”
Still, she is used to more freedom of travel, something all of the students seemed to share in common.
Ludvig Ekhlom of Stockholm, Sweden lived with Michael and Lisa Varnes-Epstein. With a strong public transport system, Ludvig was unused to needing to schedule his daily comings and goings around school and extracurricular/social activities with his parents.
He recounted a moment when his urban life ran headlong into the coordination of rural living.
“It was in January,” Ludvig recalled. “I don’t have to tell my parents when I leave. So I didn’t think about telling Michael and Lisa. I just didn’t really understand the scheduling and planning they have to do.”
He stayed after school without letting his host parents know, creating some consternation and a bit of worry.
“I just didn’t know what that would mean for them,” he said with a bemused smile at his own lack of understanding.
Differences can take them by surprise in delightful ways as well.
“I never expected to come here and go to church and have fun,” said Katja Storholm. She lives with Stacy Noel and attends church with her host family at Believers Fellowship Church in Viroqua.
“There is singing, and music, and even drums,” she said. The experience ran counter to expectations of solemnity and sermons.
Discussing the differences set off a chorus of things the students found unique to the U.S.
“People don’t eat at the table,” contributed Daniel Cauo of Madrid, Spain. He stays with Amy Allbaugh.
“They don’t eat with a fork and knife the same way here,” added Lisa Graf of Neustadt, Germany. She lives with Jorn Bansberg and Jill Stefanok. Graf said that in Europe you use your non-dominant hand to hold the knife when eating so that you need not switch utensils.
“Rednecks, chew, and trucks,” added Daniel, who said they were things he had been unfamiliar with prior to his visit. “And no one wears pajama pants to school in Spain!”
“Everyone dresses differently,” chimed in Mona Weber of Willich, Germany. She is staying with Ed and Sue Heisz. “Everyone wears sweatshirts.”
The teen said she has several now herself.
“We don’t have M&Ms,” contributed Aina Rambjoerg of Auli, Norway with a laugh and wink. “We have to go to Sweden for them.”
Aina is living with Harry and Marla Heisz.
“And no one eats ketchup on pasta,” tossed in Ludvig, with a chorus of assents.
“People here are more social,” said Anna Madsen. “I think that’s nice.” The student is from Copenhagen, Denmark and lives with Aime Heisz.
Tessa Jystad of Inderoy, Finland agreed with Anna’s assessment.
“People are more polite,” she added. “They are more interested in other people. They will ask questions and talk to you anywhere.”
Tessa is staying with Chad and Heidi Stovey.
“I have so many new friends here,” said Liv Svalland, of Stavanger, Norway. She lives with Jim and Chanda Chellevold.
Liv is one of several students for whom the experience will not academically benefit. With approval ahead of time, they can earn credits toward completion, but she considers being here in some ways a year taken off.
Pihla Jormakka agreed that the academics in her school were more intensive and that in effect, she will have to do the year over. She is from Joensun, Finland and is staying with Jen Klekamp.
The intensity of their education and the freedom of movement they enjoy at home add to an experience that they all seemed to share – their American peers feel younger in some ways to them.
“A lot of the kid are living a more ‘collegiate’ existence with their parents,” explained Jen Klekamp, the exchange program coordinator. “They aren’t independent, but they spend much less time with family socially.”
“There are more opportunities to get into college here, even if your grades aren’t that great,” Klekamp continued. “But for these students, it is much more competitive.”
So coming here becomes about forming relationships, Klekamp said. It is about developing relationships with their host families, other students, and their teachers.
“I look for statements that clue on to the kid’s expectations and things that fit with the area to find the profiles that will work here,” Klekamp said. She provided these to host families who then may go through 20 to 50 profiles before finding a match.
That process helped 12 students find homes for the year at North Crawford. Many of the students are from true cities. All of them are urban by our rural standards.
After walking down the aisle at graduation in May with the senior class, they will fly home soon after.
Some with extra bags.
“Everything is so cheap here,” Mona noted. As a result, she has far more clothing than she came with and will be paying extra to get them home.
One thing Wisconsin won’t have to worry about is cheese being smuggled out by Tessa.
“I know you’re supposed to like the cheese in Wisconsin, but I don’t,” Tessa admitted. “It’s orange. Cheese is not supposed to be orange.”