You are in a country not your own. You live there for the better part of a year with a family not your own. The culture around you may have similarities to your own, but it has differences too.
That is life as a foreign exchange student. And there are five of them at North Crawford High School finishing their visit and getting ready to head home in just a few weeks.
So what was it like living in rural Wisconsin?
Well, it was smaller—much, much smaller.
The smallest town any of the students came from is the home of Elisabeth Svala who comes from Ålgård, Norway, a municipality of approximately 10,000, and only 15 minutes from Stavanger, a small city of almost 200,000.
The other end of the spectrum is Vitor Araujo of São Paulo, Brazil, a city of 13 million.
“I got my letter and had to get ready to go,” said Fanny Butler (Stockholm, Sweden, population 2 million). “I didn’t really have time to think about everything.”
“I didn’t think it would be this small!” Butler said.
Araujo was less surprised. He successfully Googled Gays Mills on his computer, where he saw pictures of the town, in particular flood images.
“I Googled and got pictures of Amish people, floods and Apple Fest,” Araujo said. “I didn’t have many expectations. I thought it would be wet. But, I liked the pictures.”
It’s that smallness, which contributes to some of the other differences the students noticed.
“Everyone is obsessed with hunting,” commented Jesper Meisler (Trondheim, Norway, population 180,000).
“Everyone knows everyone else,” Butler added.
“And they do everything together,” followed up Svala.
“Hunting, they even do hunting together,” said Meisler laughing.
A trait all the students noted was a willingness amongst people from the U.S. to talk to strangers.
“People will randomly start talking to you,” described Feli Dolata (Berlin, Germany, population 3.5 million). “In Europe, if your sitting on a plane the people next to you will sit quietly. Americans will just start to talk to you.”
“They will tell you everything about themselves,” Butler observed.
Araujo felt that openness was a broader American trait, one more common in South America as well than in Europe.
“We are very open,” Araujo. “We just don’t tell secrets.”
That openness and involvement as it pertained to the community involvement with the school was something new, and welcome, to all the students.
“At home if seven people come to watch a soccer game, you think, hmm, okay, good crowd,” Meisler said. “Here, everyone comes. It’s really good.”
Teaching styles are far different for all the students as well.
In some ways it’s easier, in other ways it’s not, according to Butler.
“It’s easier to try new things here,” Dolata said. “You don’t have the same sports. At home, you have been playing something for a few years, you’re not going to try something new.”
“Here, you just try it for the fun of it,” continued Dolata.
“You get points for everything you do here,” Butler explained.
“And here we have something to do every day,” said Araujo.
“Teachers here show you how to do everything, each step,” added Dolata. “At home, you have to read the work and do your research to understand your work.”
“(At home) you get a project, and you have so many weeks to do it.” Butler continued. “You do it on your time, not in school. The teacher doesn’t explain it. They cover other things.”
All the students noted that the school itself was much more rigidly governed than they were used to.
“There are so many rules,” Butler said.
“You have to have permission for everything,” Svala added.
The students all were used to urban schools that allow the students to leave without permission, especially around the lunch hour. But then, they noted, if you leave here you have to drive somewhere, and where would you go? And you would have to find someone to drive you.
Because state rules have changed, none of the students have a driver license. Wisconsin now requires a student to live here for one year before they can participate in the drivers education program.
That was a disappointment for the students. According to Meisler, getting his license in Norway will cost close to $5,000. Once he does have a license, he said it would be some time before he could afford a car.
“They are much more expensive than here,” Meisler said. Norway taxes vehicles heavily – taxes and fees can actually exceed the purchase price of the vehicle as they are taxed on weight and the power of the engine. The trade off is excellent public transportation paid for by those tax dollars. The train from Trondheim, Norway to Stockholm, Sweden, 500 miles and another country away, is approximately $11.
Higher education is also better funded by tax dollars in their countries. For students who strive to succeed in secondary education in all four countries, going to university will be free.
“We get into university with our grades,” Meisler said. “Here you have to do more work to get into college. You have to write letters, show community involvement.”
“In Norway, the aid from the government gives to student helps you for living expenses,” Meisler continued.
“The way it is with university is the same as it is with medical care,” Meisler said. “It’s like the rich people deserve care, but everyone else only if they can afford it.”
In Norway, all citizens have free medical care and the government funds the hospital system.
“If you need care, you just go to the doctor and it’s taken care of,” Svala said. “If you break a finger or get hurt here, you have to pay for it.”
“So people don’t get care,” Butler added. “They put it off because they don’t have the money.”
“They have an auction to pay for care,” Meisler said. “I know people at home who have cancer and they just go to the doctor. They don’t have to worry about how they are going to pay for it. They don’t have to sell stuff for it.”
How do they pay for this in their countries? Same answer for all. Taxes.
How much do they pay?
“In Norway 40-percent of your income goes to the government,” Butler said. “More if you’re really rich.”
Actually, the average taxation rate is 36-percent in Norway with a lower rate for pensioners (retired) and numerous deductions for expenses such as childcare, work travel, etc., according to the Norwegian Ministry of finance.
Dolata estimated taxes in Germany as closer to 30-percent. The country has a progressive tax rate of zero to 45-percent based upon income and household status. Universal healthcare is funded by the government through taxation.
The students also noted another major difference. Unlike the U.S., their home countries are not heavily invested in military spending.
“We don’t really have an army,” Butler said. In fact, Norway does have a very small army of 23,000 people.
Jennifer Klekamp, the coordinator of the foreign exchange program at North Crawford came in for heavy praise from the students.
“Jen is always around,” Meisler said. “She checks in on us, takes us places.’
“We didn’t know she would be so involved,” exclaimed Svala.
“She has taken us many places,” Dolata said.
Klekamp organized trips to Chicago, the Mall of America, and a road trip to South Dakota to see the Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse National Monuments.
“She took us to see the corn palace,” said Dolata with a smile.
“And that other place, what was it, Wall Drug,” exclaimed Araujo, to which the group all laughed.
“And the Spam museum!” added Butler.
Klekamp is an exceptional coordinator according to the students, who said most foreign exchange students get checked on a few times the first month and then really hear nothing from their coordinator again until it’s time to leave.
Each of the students also took time to recognize their host families while being interviewed, expressing appreciation at being taken into the family and treated so well during their stay.
“I think more people should host (exchange students),” Butler said.
“We’ve hade one and I want to have another,” Dolata added.
“(The exchange program) gives you another reason to travel,” Butler said. “To visit and see the friends you have made.”
Fanny Butler was hosted by Ed and Sue Heisz.
Feli Dolata was hosted by Joe and Cecilia O’Brien.
Jesper Meisler was hosted Jim and Chanda Chellevold.
Elisabeth Svala was hosted by Heidi Olson-Stovey.
Vitor Araujo was hosted by Dan and Barbara Eitsert.
For questions about the Foreign Exchange Program, or to inquire about serving as a host family, you may contact Klekamp at 608-293-2399.