Exchange students reflect on school, life and culture in a new country

by: POST PHOTO: NEIL ZAWICKI - POST PHOTO: NEIL ZAWICKI Sandy High is host to seven exchange students this year. They are Kristina Vorelova, Slovakia; Santiago Figeroa Manrique, Colombia; Lea Nebling, Germany; Christian Bergfried, Germany; Allan Debaerdemaeker, Holland, Fumika Miyamoto, Japan; and Maja Oerslund, Denmark.At a glance, they look like typical high school students, but a conversation with them reveals a little more.

On March 4, seven high school exchange students, representing six nations, sat down with The Post to give their thoughts on the experience of studying for a year away from their homelands.

Maja Oerslund, 16, from Denmark, was the first to offer her insights on the question of cultural differences for high school-age kids. She says the biggest thing she heard about American kids was that they do not have close friends, but a large group of casual friends. This, she was told, is because the schools here are so large, unlike the schools in Denmark, where students spend their entire careers in the same classroom with the same kids.

“In Denmark, you have one class. I had the same class for 10 years, so I knew all the people really well,” Oerslund says. “So, there’s not really bullying or anything because everybody knows you.”

To further drive the point home, Oerslund says she had only 16 people in her entire class. This considerable difference in class size and the changing peer groups resonates as well with Colombian exchange student Santiago Figueroa Manrique, 17, who describes the vastness of American classrooms and the changing peer groups as a challenge.

“It’s very difficult to have a relationship with somebody (in the American model), especially if you’re new from another country,” Figueroa Manrique said.

Of course, his observation stems from his status as a cultural outsider, and when asked how they have been received by the school in general, the response is mixed. Most say their host students have been very friendly, and then one student, Slovakian Kristina Vorelova, 17, chimes in with one word: “Sometimes.”

This makes the others laugh, and Vorelova explains.

“Not always,” she says. “Like, not everyone, but I have a few classes where the people are not interested. They’re like, ‘You’re like a new kid and we don’t care about you,’ but still there are others that will come up to you and say hello.”

As she continued, Vorelova touched upon a universality of American high school life: the clique.

“I got this feeling that here is a lot of, like, groups,” she said. “And they don’t want you bringing other people to their group.”

Oerslund agreed, and suggested she’s experienced a small amount of resentment here.

“I overheard a conversation, and I don’t know if it was just mad kids or something, but they were saying they don’t like how the foreign exchange students get a lot of special treatment from the teachers. They were not happy about it.”

Another key difference between schools, and one that holds true for the other exchange students, is that the schedule of subjects studied will vary from day to day, rather than the seven-period repetition of American schools. Also, subjects such as science and mathematics, in their countries, are studied as one progressive subject rather than the separate subject model found here.

“We just have one class in science,” explained German exchange student Lea Nebling, 17. “Here there are all different types, like chemistry and then physics and then biology.”

To hear this, it might be easy to conclude that these guest students are having a tough time, but in fact the opposite is true.

“It’s like a one-year vacation,” says Japanese exchange student Fumika Miyamoto, 16. “And it’s pretty surprising to me that algebra II is the graduation requirement. In Japan, it’s pre-calculus for just social studies (majors).”

Figerora Manrique agreed the math requirements here are, for a lack of a better word, relaxing.

“The only reason I didn’t take calc was because then I would have homework,” he said.

“It’s so weird, only doing one (subject) at a time,” Miyamoto added.

It isn’t a big surprise that the students find their American workload a little on the easy side.

To be sure, high school students in Europe and South America speak more than one language, sometimes three.

In fact, Nebling speaks German, English, Spanish and French. It is safe to say that these exchange students represent the over-achiever set from their respective countries. And in fact a fair number of them are involved in extracurricular activities. Vorelova is in dance, and Miyamoto is in the choir, which will perform at Lincoln Center in New York City in April.

Two of the boys, Figerora Manrique and German Christian Bergfried, 17, are on the football team. While Bergfried is a rugby veteran, both students say they knew nothing about American football before coming to the United States.

“It’s fun,” says Figueroa Manrique. “Really fun, because you get to tackle people. When you get to hit people, it’s the best.”

His remark draws giggles from Miyamoto, illustrating that there aren’t as many differences between American and international high school kids after all.

Apart from such ruminations on the social and academic differences, the students reveal a genuine excitement for their experience here.

Oerslund says there’s no way to put the excitement into just one experience, because every day is full of so many new things.

Still, the students become animated when sharing their zeal for things Americans might never appreciate in the same way. For example, Red Solo Brand drinking cups. That’s right.

“I couldn’t believe it when I found Red Solo Cups!” Vorelova exclaimed. “I saw those in every American movie!”

Oerslund as well shared her giddiness for the otherwise mundane, explaining her love of a certain type of cookie.

“I remember one day at the store, there were Girl Scouts selling their cookies and we bought some. I asked my host family, ‘Did we really just buy Girl Scout cookies!?’”

Oerslund said later while she was on Skype with her friend back home, she got to tell her about her Girl Scout cookie experience.

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