◎By Greg Bird

Last week, as most McCreary County students were looking ahead to the last day of school and mapping out their plans for summer vacation, seven students were looking forward to returning home to their families for the first time in 10 months.

Wednesday I had an opportunity to sit down and chat with six of these courageous travelers and learn more about them and their experiences in McCreary County. Ann-Kathrin Bernhauer, Cheng-Chih Hsieh (known as Jacky to everyone), “Anny” Wan Hsuan Lin, Sara Napstjert, Mathias Paumgarten (Matty) and Mina Yokoma all took time out of their day to sit down and talk about how they have changed and what they learned about America from our little slice of the country. (The seventh student, Vera Lichtenhahn, was ill and unable to take part in the interview).

The first question I asked was why they decided to pack their bags and travel halfway around the globe to spend a year of high school in a foreign country.

While getting a better mastery of the English language was high on the list of priorities, there were other, more personal reasons as well.

“I wanted to be an exchange student because I wanted to go abroad and this was a good opportunity to do so. Since Taiwan is a very small island, I wanted to see more things,” said Jacky who hails from Taiwan.

Denmark’s Sara plans to use her experiences to help her in her future career. “I wanted to improve my English because I want to travel in the future with my job. I want to be a construction engineer.”

Austrian Matty learned quickly that this was a life-altering experience. “I signed up for the program because I wanted to improve my English,” he said. “But once you come here you realize it is not the language that matters, you get real growth and maturity. You experience different things. You get out of your normal life and get a chance to see what else you can do.”

For Mina, who wants to go into broadcasting after college in Japan, the trip was all about growth as well. “I wanted to improve my English and wanted to be a stronger person,” she said.

“I wanted to see a different culture and how people live,” said Germany’s Ann.

And McCreary Central’s other Taiwanese student, Anny, was getting a head start on college. “I plan to go to college in America, so this was like basic training for me and it was a great challenge,” she said.

Each of the students admitted they were a little nervous when they first arrived, but every one quickly adapted once they saw how soon they were accepted among their fellow students and made friends.

“When you sit on a plane, you think about what is going to be different and what you are going to be missing,” Matty said. “Then when I came over here, I figured out it is kind of the same thing: you hang out with the same kind of people, you do the same stuff. The setting and the background changes, but my friends are still the same kind of people as over there and I still have the same kind of lifestyle.”

“The first month is weird getting used to the small differences and the food, but apart from that it is kind of the same actually,” he added.

Ann said that the openness of the people she met and the friends she made came as a pleasant surprise, “I think that (my host) family and friends helped a lot here,” she said. “I think that Americans here are so friendly. People are so willing to talk to you even if they don’t know you.”

Anny said after a slow start, she adapted quickly with the help of some patient friends. “I think the beginning was hard because of language problems. But my classmates were very nice, and they helped me a lot.”

All six of the students admitted to being surprised by the cultural differences in America, and the food, but they also found that a lot of the things were the same as they were back home.

“I am from the capital where there is a lot of public transportation,” Sara said. “Here, everybody depends so much on their cars to go somewhere because there is no way you can just start walking. That has been a big change. I had to get used to staying home more and having to be so dependent on figuring out how I am going to get where I want to go and how I am to get home, when I was so used to taking my bicycle.”

“The food is definitely a big difference. I am used to more vegetables, but over here, everything seems to be dipped in grease,” she said.

“Everybody here was friendly and easy to get along with,” said Jacky. “We eat rice everyday, but here the food is different, it was easy to adopt to though.”

Sara didn’t realize that babysitting duties came included with the trip, but she came to love it.

“I am the youngest in my family,” she said. “With my host family, there is a younger sibling. That has been a big change for me. I have had to deal with changing diapers and the yelling and screaming, I haven’t been around younger kids, but I really liked my host brothers and sisters.”

Matty also found American’s dependence on cars as a shock, but welcomed the openness of people.

“Over here, you drive to your grandparents’ house, which is right next door. It takes longer to get in the car and start it than just to walk,” he said.

“In Europe you keep things more to yourself. You just live in your own little world. Over here you can go into a supermarket and people will tell you everything they did yesterday. To me that is interesting. I like to listen to people.”

Ann found that sometimes no matter where you go, people are the same.

“Although there are differences, the basics are still the same,” she said. “You do the same things.

Americans have the same teenage problems that we have in Europe. But I thought prom was awesome, because we don’t have that back home.”

Anny really liked going to school here in McCreary County because she was able to study different subjects.

“I think school here is neat, you can really learn something you want to learn. I think that is good. In Taiwan, you have to learn a lot of things you don’t need,” she said.

“It is different here, but it is fun to meet other people. When you come here, you have a new life and can start all over. You learn new things and you do a lot of stuff you never do at home. I would encourage my friends to be an exchange student.”

The saying goes “all good things must come to an end.” For the exchange students, they are excited about sleeping in their familiar beds again and reconnecting with old friends, but every one of them admitted to leaving a little bit of themselves behind.

“It is hard to say because I like both places,” Jacky said. “I am excited to go home, but I will miss things here. People are so enthusiastic and easy to get along with. If you are used to a busy life, things move so slowly here. If you are only used to one culture or one type of person, you never get to know the outside world. It helps to open your mind and can accept more different things.”

For Sara, she realizes that this past year has left an impression on her that she will never forget. “I think it was easier to leave home because I was thinking ‘I’m going to be back.’ But when I leave here, it’s for good. I’m excited because I am going home and I missed it so much, but I think when I go home, I will start missing what I left behind.”

Mina said her time abroad has helped her to appreciate what she left behind. “I do have my parents back in Japan and all the ordinary stuff, and I never paid attention to it. But I do feel a lot more love for my parents now, and I miss them so much. I am excited to go home. It is a good thing.”

“I really appreciate my host family. It is not easy to put up a stranger in their house for a whole year.”

“It was kind of sad to leave home,” Ann said. “But I really enjoyed being here. I don’t want to leave my host family behind, because I feel really close to them, but I am excited to go home.”

Anny, who plans to attend college in California, will have it easier than her fellow exchange students. “I think maybe saying goodbye is not a bad thing. It will be easy for me to come back,” she said. “My sister is going to get a job in America so it will be easy to visit. I think I will be back next year. It is easier for me to say goodbye. I am looking forward to seeing them again.”

“I had a lot of fun with my host family. We traveled a lot and they took me to a lot of places. I want to thank them for letting me have a really good year.”

Perhaps Matty summed it up the best. “I just left in a‘See you later way.’ It was just for ten months: I thought it would be over so fast,” he said. “When you leave here it is like I may never see you again. That is a weird feeling. I don’t really want to think about it. I really don’t want to go back. I do miss my friends and I want to find out what has gone on. The home thing is like a movie you put on pause. But here is like free TV, you can’t get that back. The whole America thing is over for me; back home it is just waiting for me.”

For all of these young travelers, their future includes college. The experiences they have had over the past ten months will surely help them along the path to success in whatever field they choose.

The students came to McCreary County through an exchange program sponsored by the EF Foundation for Foreign Study. The program matches teenage students in foreign lands with host families all across the country who are willing to take in a complete stranger for a school year.

Eddie Bear and Rebecca Stephens act as International Exchange Coordinators for EF and offer support to the students and host families throughout the year.

While all of the students showed their appreciation for their host families, they saved a final thank you for Eddie and Rebecca.

“Eddie Bear is one of the coolest school counselors I have ever met in my whole life,” Matty said.

“Rebecca has done a lot of stuff. It is hard to keep up with seven teenagers, as well as her own kids,” Sara added. “We really want to thank them for all they have done for us.”

~from McCreary County's newspaper <The Voice>

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