Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
By Jean Doran Matua, Editor
Last September, three students from overseas arrived at Kimball Area High School to begin what would be a most memorable year. They were Mareike "Mary" Petermann from Germany; Thanyaphorn "Mine" Phrensi from Thailand; and Shota Kuprava from Georgian Republic. Their host families were, respectively, Steve and Mary Ann Edwards, Gary and Lana Vossen, and Anton and Jean Matua, all of Kimball.
All three students are back in their home countries now, but we talked with them before they left.
There are few things these three have in common. All are relatively quiet and shy; all are hard-working students and high achievers. They sought a year of new experiences in a foreign land, hoping to strengthen their English skills and observe American culture first-hand. Naturally, they missed their friends and family back home. All came from school systems where they don't get to choose their classes. They took challenging classes, participated in sports and other extracurricular activities, and all did very well academically.
Mary is from Crimmitschau, Germany, a town in the Saxony region with about 20,000 people including surrounding communities. (The city will celebrate its 600th anniversary in 2014, although it began as a rural settlement 800 years ago.) She lives with her parents, a truck assembly worker and a secretary/bookkeeper, and she has an older brother and older sister. She missed her grandmother's creamed spinach while she was here.
This year will not count for Mary academically, and she'll have to repeat the whole year in Germany. It was worth it for her, though, she said. "It was experience for life," she said, "not for school." She thought teachers here are more friendly and more caring.
Mary really loved sweet corn, saying it was "like heaven." Her favorite experience was prom. She also enjoyed jumping off cliffs at Quarry Park. "I didn't think I was that type, but I did it," she said. "It was pretty fun!"
Mary participated in choir, FFA and track. She wishes she'd joined activities earlier. She'd been a bit hesitant, but said it was a great way to meet people. Besides her host family, she's grateful to her coordinator Karla Ehlinger for helping her get out and meet people, and making the best of her experiences here.
She highly recommends being an exchange student. It's a great way to learn a different culture, see the world, learn different history, and improve language skills.
Now that she's home, she'll start driver's education. She can't drive until she's 18, but that's in October.
Shota is from Tbilisi, the capitol of the Georgian Republic, with a population of about 1.5 million. He is the oldest of three sons, and his parents are both chemists. He especially missed his youngest brother George who turned 5
while Shota was here. George was convinced that Shota was living on the moon this past year, since he flew away on an airplane. Every time they spoke, George demanded that Shota return home. Now that he's home again, George doesn't let Shota out of his sight.
Shota enjoyed family trips to Duluth, the Minnesota Arboretum, and lots of concerts. He even fondly remembers the car getting towed, getting lost in the middle of nowhere a few times, and other "adventures" along the way.
He enjoyed living in a small community with "the most awesome host family in the world." He loved Chinese and Mexican food, and chocolate cake and chocolate chip cookies. (He soon tired of American cheese and butter, and hopes never to see macaroni and cheese again.)
"I was surprised by how much Americans work toward their goals, how they support each other, and how each one of them has a huge role in the community," Shota said.
Shota did well in speech and band, and he really enjoyed extracurricular activities and competition with other schools.
This past week, Shota passed a number of exams in each subject area he did not study here (i.e., everything except English) and has successfully passed the 11th grade in Georgia. Next year he will finish his senior year in Georgia, and he then hopes to attend university in the United States. Ultimately, he plans to return to Georgia to help make some needed changes there, perhaps starting with the education system there.
Mary and Mine came to the United States through Youth For Understanding (YFU). YFU originally focused on Germany and Asian countries, and was established shortly after World War II.
Shota's program was Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) through the United States Department of State. This program focuses on future leaders from former-Soviet republics. There are extra requirements to enter the program, and additional responsibilities during the school year here. Shota will be involved with other alumni of the program in Georgia. (Milana Vozba was a student in Kimball two years ago through this same program.)
Mine is an only child from Phitsanulok, a provincial capitol in Thailand. It is a town of nearly 85,000 located about five hours from the Thai capitol of Bangkok. Her home high school is a college preparatory school. She arrives home in the middle of her senior year there, and will have to make up some of her coursework that's already in progress. She also will have to pass about 10 subject exams in order for her work in Kimball to count toward her education in Thailand.
Mine's father is a restaurant supplier, and her mother teaches English to young children. Her mother was against Mine coming to the United States because she thought Mine was too shy, but Mine convinced her that she really wanted to come.
Mine hopes to pursue a career in art, perhaps as a movie director, art director, doing graphic design or computer art. It's a very competitive program, but she's ready to work hard. Her ultimate goals is to attend Columbia Art School in Chicago, and she's pretty sure her parents will let her.
Mine's exchange program prepared her before her arrival here. "They told us that not all of America is like New York," she said. Still, she was surprised by corn fields everywhere. In fact, for awhile she had nightmares about being lost and running through corn fields.
Mine enjoyed her art and cooking classes. She's wild about S'mores, Taco John's Mexican food, apple crisp, and her host mom's ham and potato soup. She enjoyed having two host sisters whom she will miss. One of her fondest memories is making a huge, 7-foot-high snowman on a Snow Day; she's only sad that it melted the next day. (Thailand is a tropical country, and there's no snow there.) Her least favorite thing here was how people don't wait well in line.
"I wanted to open my mind, open my eyes," Mine said. "I changed a lot this year." Being an exchange student increased her confidence.
Every year, thousands of qualified exchange students are turned away because of a shortage of host families. Nearly anyone can host an exchange student; single people, couples without children. The primary commitment of host families is to feed the students, and to provide a "normal" home life and "American" experience for them.
Exchange opportunities are available for American students to study overseas as well, including in English-speaking countries.
There are many exchange programs available. Here is the contact information for the two coordinators involved with these three students:
Karla Ehlinger (YFU), (320) 398-5903
Richard Barkalow (ASSE/FLEX), (320) 250-4867