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Foreign exchange students adapting to small-town life in Sauk Valley

STERLING – Theerapat Thirawat, a 17-year-old foreign exchange student at Newman Central Catholic High School, had never ridden a horse before coming to the Sauk Valley.

He went from living in Bangkok, with a metropolitan population of about 8.2 million, to a farm in Amboy.

He feeds animals every day at 6 p.m., obeying his host family’s wishes, he said. His farm experience is quite different from his life in Thailand, where he followed a strict schedule of study and military training.

Every Monday, he trained to be a soldier in his homeland, and “in Thailand I wake up at 6 a.m. and studied,” he said.

Thirawat is one of 18 foreign exchange students in Sauk Valley high schools this year. They represent nine countries on four continents. And many, like Thirawat, come from large cities, including Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Warsaw, and Seoul.

Newman has eight foreign exchange students this year, the most in the Sauk Valley high schools. Dixon has six; Sterling, two; and Ashton-Franklin-Center and Rock Falls, one each.

“I know it’s a growing market of international students wanting to study at American schools in the hopes of pursuing a college degree in the U.S.,” Sterling High School Principal Jason Austin said.

A German student who studied last year at Sterling High School, Johanna Jahns, recently returned to the Sauk Valley to visit American colleges, Austin said.

Beth McFalls is a youth exchange officer for Twin City Sunrise Rotary Club.

“A couple of our [inbound] students have been interested in coming back here for college,” she said. “It’s very possible that could be a reason why [foreign exchange students from large cities are coming to the Sauk Valley].”

Bob Sondgeroth is a youth counselor for Rock Falls Rotary Club. Volunteers such as Rotarians, who are willing to work to bring students here, are a main reason the area has attracted so many foreign exchange students from major cities, he said.

“It’s basically because we have the volunteer system that will promote exchange,” Sondgeroth said. “It all comes down to who’s going to do the work to get a foreign exchange system. The main reason is the volunteerism that we have in the Sauk Valley area that feels it’s a priority.”

Another reason, he said, is some school districts in bigger cities don’t want to take on additional students that bring no additional state funds.

“In bigger cities, they don’t want the hassle,” Sondgeroth said. “There’s no state aid for a foreign exchange student. It’s an extra student that they have to educate with no extra funds. Principals and superintendents in this area feel that the cultural experience their students receive outweighs the cost.”

While an outbound student is in another country, the American school district does not receive state aid for that student, he said.

Debbi Kelly is counselor at Newman. Foreign students adjust and recover from the culture shock of living in a much smaller American city, she said.

“I’m sure they have culture shock, but most of them look at the different options they have, and for them to come to a brand new culture, sometimes smaller environments work better for them,” she said.

Tammy Harvey is principal at Ashton-Franklin-Center High School. Ashton has about 1,000 residents, but the school has hosted students from Madrid, Berlin and a major city in China, she said.

Currently, the school hosts Ann-Kathrin Metz, 15, from Dusseldorf, Germany, a city of more than 580,000. Metz lives with a host family in West Brooklyn, a Lee County village of about 140 people.

“We’ve had some kids in the past who’ve had culture shock coming to such a small town,” Harvey said. “They’ve said that there’s nothing to do. But they get acclimated.”

Metz has adjusted well enough to be one of the AFC cheerleaders.

“I like that you can pump up the crowd a lot, and it’s just fun dancing and screaming and it gets you really happy, I guess,” said Metz, who also was a cheerleader in Germany.

But like many of the European students, she has had to adjust to being greeted by strangers.

“People here are more eager to greet people,” she said. “That would never happen in Germany. If you greet somebody just because it’s nice, they would look at you like you were a stranger and somebody who’s really weird.”

Some of the students from larger cities have noticed a lack of public transportation in the area. None of the students interviewed had secured an American driver’s license.

Luciana Amaramte, 18, is from Rio de Janeiro, which has about 10.5 million residents. She studies at Newman and lives in Sterling.

“A problem here is transportation,” she said. “I have to have someone drive me everywhere because I can’t take a bus or subway.”

The students have noticed a difference in American curriculum, which many find easier than their classes in their native countries. Some of the students said the skills being taught in high schools here they already learned years ago in their homeland.

“What I did here in geometry, I did in eighth grade in Germany,” said Paula Noemi-Hettler, 15, who is studying at Dixon.

Fellow German, Martha Lahann, 15, also said she finds courses here easier.

“I had an open-note quiz,” she said. “That would never happen in Germany.”

The area’s young visitors have noticed that food portions in America are bigger, and often not very healthy.

Nora Okuogume, 16, a Finnish student studying at Rock Falls, has not had fish yet, she noted, which is an adjustment from her country, where fish and boiled potatoes are staples. Her Finnish school provided more fresh vegetables, she said.

“We have always fruits,” she said of Finland.

Sterling’s foreign exchange students, however, have been enjoying a classic American snack: the corn dog.

“I fell in love with corn dogs,” and peanut butter, said Niko Grzesiak, 17, from Warsaw, Poland.

“Corn dogs are so good,” agreed Michelle Velazquez, 16, from Celaya, Mexico.

Newman senior Chris Breed, 17, said he and his fellow American students benefited from getting to know foreign students.

“You can learn different cultures and how life is like over there, and you can share with them,” he said.

Bringing the world to the Sauk Valley:

Listed are the 18 foreign exchanges students attending Sauk Valley high schools this year:

Ashton-Franklin-Center High School

Ann-Kathrin Metz, 15, Dusseldorf, Germany

Dixon High School

Martha Lahann, 15, Wietze, Germany

Romulo Lobo, 16, Brasilia, Brazil

Paula Noemi-Hettler, 15, Hanover, Germany

Nutchada Parinayawanich, 16, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Judit Pujol, 18, Barcelona, Spain

Bianca Zwaan, 16, Den Oever, Netherlands

Newman Central Catholic High School

Luciana Amaramte, 18, Rio, Brazil

Maria Del Mar Cerame Perez, 16, Betanzos, Spain

John Chen, 16, Changzhou, China

Yu Fu, 17, Xuzhou, China

Sophia Kaufhold, Rheda, Germany, 15

Gabriel Lee, 16, Seoul, South Korea

Theerapat Thirawat 17, Bangkok, Thailand

Zora Treiber, Hanover, Germany, 15

Rock Falls High School

Nora Okuogume 16, Kokemaki, Finland

Sterling High School

Niko Grzesiak, 17, Warsaw, Poland

Michelle Velazquez, 16, Celaya, Mexico

To help or host a student:

To host a foreign exchange student, call:

Dixon Rotary Club

Krystie Jones, 815-973-0030

International Experience

Tammy Pierson, 815-234-2111

International Student Exchange

Sally Hoessel, 815-871-5245

Rock Falls Rotary Club

Bob Sondgeroth, 815-625-3985 or Kay Ferris, 815-625-1450

Twin City Sunrise Rotary Club

Beth McFalls, 815-590-0802

Sterling Noon Rotary Club 

Jan Andersen, 815-626-3235

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