Bringing the world to Lake County
Two Harbors and Silver Bay high schools certainly don't offer anything like the dramatic private school experience portrayed in the CW television series "Gossip Girl".
Penny Juenemann, who has hosted three foreign exchange students, said that's the biggest misconception students have when arriving in the U.S.
"A lot of kids expect the U.S. to be like New York City or the places you see in movies," she said.
While Lake County is a far cry from the upper east side of Manhattan, Juenemann said students usually adjust quickly and learn to love the small-town atmosphere.
"It's still a really good thing. They are really taken care of by the student body," she said.
The Juenemann family has hosted two girls--one from Thailand and one from Chile--and one boy from Ukraine in the past. Kate from Bangkok, a city that's population is greater than all of Minnesota, found her niche in tiny Two Harbors.
She studied at Two Harbors High School 2006-2007 and has fond memories of the area, although she did find the cold winters a challenge. In Thailand, temperatures average 80 degrees, so the adjustment to below zero temperatures was tough. Unwilling to let the cold Minnesota winter keep her indoors, she joined the ski team, though she had never seen snow.
Studying in Two Harbors wasn't just fun for Kate. It helped in her profession, as well. There are more options in Thailand for those who can speak English, she said. " Being abroad taught me how to be independent and respect my own decisions," she added.
This year, the Juenemanns are taking a break from hosting. Instead they are acting as a liaison for AFS, a popular exchange program that brings students to the area.
A liaison is a former host who acts as a neutral contact for exchange students staying with other families. They get in touch with the students frequently and help them adjust to their new lives.
Dave Rossetter, former host father and AFS volunteer, now helps Rotary International place its students. After more than a decade of involvement in exchange programs, he's seen a few changes over the years. The economic downturn in 2008 has affected families' willingness to bring another child under their roof, but he also said that communities have been much more receptive to hosting students from outside the U.S.
"Having someone from a foreign country isn't as big of a deal as it was 30 years ago," he noted.
The Rossetters have hosted four students, one each from Thailand, Russia, Norway and France.
"They've all enjoyed the people here," he said.
Although the exchange students learn a lot from the experience, so do their host families and communities. "We don't have a lot of diversity [in this area] so it's really good to bring some of that," Jeunemann said. "It brings the world closer."
Rossetter, a retired teacher, agreed, adding that a foreign perspective often adds to the education of students. "As a teacher, I loved it. It was just great to be able to bring a real live person that had lived somewhere else."
Juenemann, who has two daughters of her own with husband Jamie, said the hardest part of adding an extra member to the household is coordinating everyone's schedules. "Getting everyone where they need to be is the biggest challenge."
Other challenges--like students wanting to stay out until 3 a.m. and realizing that their American family has a curfew--are less obstacles and more learning experiences. "It's all part of the education process," Juenemann said.
Though students might be surprised by the small town and isolated region, Juenemann sees Lake County as a great place for the exchange experience.
"It's big enough, but small enough that they're kind of special," she said. "I've always been impressed by how inclusive, helpful, and friendly the students are to the exchange students."
This year, Two Harbors will host one student from Sweden through AFS and one student from Germany through Rotary International. There are two or three more students at the high school through other programs. Many students have no idea where they'll be spending their year until a few days before their departure. According to Jeff Wallner, AFS regional hosting coordinater, about 50% of their exchange students were placed in August.
"This is a crazy time of year for us," Wallner said.
Hosting a student for an entire year isn't the only way to get involved.
"There are things that we can always use help with," Rossetter said.
Sometimes students just need a family to welcome them for their first days or weeks in the country. "Aunt and uncle families" can also participate by hosting a student for a weekend or even a day trip. Area volunteers help recruit families to participate in the program. There are countless ways to participate other than full-year commitments, Juenemann said.
Anyone who wishes to host a student or volunteer in any other capacity can contact Wallner at email@example.com or (800) 876-2377 ext. 2938 or Dave Rossetter at 834-5781.
"This isn't about politics, it's about people. When you get people together, they find out they have things in common," Rossetter said.