Nine exchange students from three different countries are attending Vicksburg High School this year. This year’s exchange students are Simone Binder, Fabienne Heimann, Jana Drexler, Marie Luedemann, Till Strunk, Philipp Ashauer, and Jeffrey Truong, all from Germany, and Ilaria Giustacchini from Italy and Alabina Zaganior from Montenegro.
These students have now spent about six months in the United States. They say their time in the U.S. has taught them to be grateful for their home countries and has actually instilled more patriotism in them.
This is not to say that they don’t love and appreciate America, but just that it has been an eye-opener to the unique blessings of their homelands.
The German students were concerned about Americans’ impression of them based on their country’s history in World War II and that they might be judged by their country’s past. However, Binder said she told herself it wasn’t any different than our country’s history with slavery and that made it easier for her to understand.
The exchange students also agree that Vicksburg High School is far easier than the schools in their home countries. They also love that our schools offer so many activities.
“There is no school spirit,” said Luedemann of her German schools, and no sports, homecoming or any other social activities.
The students also noticed that friendships here surround the school life. That is not the case in their countries, Giustacchini said, because in Italy, “School is for school and nothing else.” Social interactions and all sports are separate from school.
In Italy, there is no acknowledgment of graduation either; their scores are simply posted at year-end.
Giustacchini says in Italy families are responsible for the cost of all books for all classes from elementary through high school. College, however, will be far different in cost than the United States, because it is free in Germany and only approximately 9,000 Euros (approximately $12,000) in Italy.
Some exchange students receive no credit for their time in the U.S. Others do while some have to take tests when they return home to determine whether they will receive credit for their time here or not. This played a role for some of their parents in making the decision to allow their children to participate in the exchange program.
Study Abroad is Costly for the Students’ Families
Each of the students had the support of their families and the extensive financial commitment needed for them to study abroad. Binder knew from the eighth grade that she wanted to participate. Zaganior had one brother who was a foreign exchange student and was even placed in Michigan, so her parents were familiar and ready for her to participate.
Ashauer remembers that his mother was completely mindful of her son’s wishes because she also wanted to study abroad when she was a student but wasn’t allowed to by her parents.
Some of that support was closer than they knew. Strunk and Ashauer found at the International Experience orientation that they unknowingly lived only about ten minutes apart in Germany and they both ended up at Vicksburg High School.
Although exciting, coming into a foreign school where students know no one has its downsides at times, too. Strunk was intimidated by the school bus and lunch. Binder said, “They (students) have all known each other from kindergarten and we are strangers.”
They have been told by some students here that they don’t want to get close to the foreign exchange students because they are afraid of getting close and then the exchange students will just leave and it will be sad.
Luedemann said that because Vicksburg has had so many exchange students “maybe they were nothing special anymore.”
The exchange students also felt a loss of independence in the United States. In their home countries, they live in or near cities where they have mass transportation available to them for sports and social activities. Feeling like a burden when asking for rides has been a difficult transition when they are used to substantially more freedom at home.
This has not stopped them though, as each of the students has participated in multiple sports and/or extracurricular activities at VHS.
American Food is Not the Same as at Home
Then there is, of course, the issue of food. Compared to their home countries, apparently Americans’ eating habits could be improved. When asked what foods they missed most, the German students said, “Bread!” In their opinion, American bread isn’t bread. Their mouths practically watered when describing the bread of their homeland.
Luedemann added, “We don’t fry everything. The students agree that they eat far fewer processed foods and more fresh fruits and vegetables, and more fish back home.
The students sang the praises of the kindness and support of the Vicksburg community as a whole, noting how nice, welcoming and helpful everyone has been to them as they blended in their host families, school, sports, and the community as a whole.
Praise for VHS Administrators
Carolyn Kitzmiller of Vicksburg, the Supervising Local Coordinator for the International Experience (IE) organization, credits the success of the exchange program, beyond the extensive family commitment to Keevin O’Neill, Vicksburg High School principal
O’Neill has never turned down a placement even though they have had a few troubled students in the past, she says.
“He is an amazing man who truly cares about the children,” she says.
O’Neill’s assistant, Peggy Makowski, handles all of the exchange students’ applications, state shot requirements, and the unending paperwork that has to be in place for the students to attend VHS.
Kitzmiller also gives credit to Athletic Director Mike Roy and his assistant Rhonda VanderKamp, as well as VHS school counselors, Diana Alger and Andy Lothschutz, and their assistant Denise Berry.
She also praises the teachers, office and other staff, and the kids in the high school for making the students feel welcome and helping them whenever possible. Kitzmiller also has an unending devotion to these young people, taking many into her home over the years, including giving a temporary home to students not yet placed or where placements were not successful.
She truly is another American Mom to each and every one of the students she places.
When Zaganior was asked what her favorite thing was in America, she emphatically replied, “Carolyn!” Her caring nature and tireless energy is the icing on the success cake of the program.