Exchange students mingle in local schools

MICHAEL KELLY The Marietta Times American Foreign Students exchange high school students Melanie Vogel from Austria and Bronislav Theuer from the Czech Republic talk to Marietta High School students while getting snacks after a presentation Friday.

Friday held an element of the exotic at Marietta High School as a group of foreign exchange students studying in some of the region’s schools for the year stopped by to get acquainted and offer presentations about their home countries.

The students, hosted by American Foreign Students, a nonprofit that facilitates study abroad for American students and study in U.S. schools for foreign students, arranged the weekend orientation for the foreign students, who are about halfway through their American high school experience. AFS said it has about 42 students in southeast Ohio and northwest West Virginia.

Some of them spoke to Jade Thompson’s group at Marietta High School during Friday noon hour.

Melanie Vogel, from Austria, is attending Parkersburg South High School. She offered some information about her home country, noting that it’s the native land of figures as diverse as Mozart, Arnold Schwarzenegger and astronaut Flex Baumgartner. Bronislaw Theueer, from the Czech Republic, attends Thomas Worthington High School in Columbus and played a video account of his trip from Prague to Columbus. Iida Kautto of Finland, who is going to Ritchie County High School in West Virginia, said Finns value education — “We have the best education system in the world” — and have an entire segment of their culture built around saunas, which she said are a part of every home.

All the guest students said they were surprised at the openness and friendliness Americans often extend to complete strangers.

“I wanted to laugh when people greet others they don’t even know,” Theuer said. “Czechs don’t smile a lot or talk to strangers, but we’re still friendly.”

Kautto — who speaks Finnish, Swedish, English and Spanish — said Finns dislike small talk and avoid exchanges with strangers, so interactions in American society surprised her somewhat.

Vogel said student exchange experiences permeate her family — her father and sister also studied in the U.S. under exchange programs. Despite that, American society was still something of an adjustment.

“You have to trust strangers, and that’s hard at first,” she said.

Theuer described getting ready for his trip.

“I had to pack everything for a year in one 50-pound suitcase,” he said.

He also had to say goodbye to family and friends, but one thing he wasn’t expecting is the difficult prospect coming at the end of the school year when he bids farewell to his host family and high school friends, he said.

“It’s a different language and culture, but on thing I didn’t realize was how hard it will be to leave this behind after a year here,” he said.

All the students were unaccustomed to the wealth of extracurricular activities associated with American schools. Theuer said Czechs are avid beer-drinkers and fans of ice hockey, and when he began looking for something to do he decided on football.

“I knew nothing about it except the shape of the ball,” he said.

He played on the team and the highlight of his season was recovering a fumble, he said.

Kautto said she was surprised at the “drama between teenagers and their parents,” which is unusual among reserved Finnish families.

The students in the room at Marietta High School were enthusiastic about the chance to meet some of their counterparts from other areas of the world.

Jade Thompson, the teacher, said it’s especially important in Marietta.

“Marietta doesn’t have lot of diversity, and this is pretty cool because it brings the world to us,” she said.

Exchange students from the AFS group also visited Marietta’s four elementary schools and Marietta Middle School, Warren High School, and three high schools, two middle schools, and one elementary in West Virginia, organizer Jay Phillips of Marietta said. The effort, he said, was helped by 20 volunteers from the Marietta-Parkersburg area and the southeastern Ohio region.

“It’s a great collaborative effort to provide these great AFSers with a positive experience,” he said.

By the numbers

American Foreign Students:

¯ Established for 70 years to encourage and facilitate American high school students studying abroad and foreign students studying in America.

¯ Arranges volunteer host families and group transportation.

¯ Number of students in weekend orientation: 42.

¯ Host families in Marietta, Parkersburg and Ritchie County: 20.

¯ Number of AFS-sponsored American students abroad: 2,300.