DALLAS -- Sirpa Peterson has always wanted to get involved in the foreign exchange program at Dallas High School. No, she doesn't plan on traveling to a strange, faraway country during the school year, she just hosts a student who has.
In a lot of ways, Dallas, Oregon isn't all that strange to Peterson's host student from Switzerland, Thomas Burki. "I was comfortable the first minute I came here," he said.
First Burki had to overcome the language barrier. "It was hard for him to understand English. He would get bored when we watched TV, but then he could understand better after a while," said Peterson.
The whole Peterson family was involved in the decision to host Burki and looked forward to his arrival, but they weren't sure what to expect. Turns out, "there's not a whole lot of difference" between him and other teens, said Peterson.
That's not counting Burki's unexpected appetite quirk. While most Americans find Swiss cheese appealing, this Swiss finds American bread a treat. "He eats more bread than anyone I'd ever seen in my life," said Peterson. "I like the bread, especially garlic bread; we don't have that in Switzerland," said Burki. He likes it so much that for his birthday, the Petersons presented him with French and garlic bread.
Burki is adjusting to American holiday customs, especially eating his first Thanksgiving dinner and discovering that Americans think reindeer guide Santa's sleigh. "In Switzerland, we have donkeys instead of reindeer," he said.
All the while, the Petersons are discovering aspects of Swiss culture. To make Burki feel more at home, they prepare Swiss recipes like fondue, which Peterson describes as "a drippy cheese that you dip bread in." When spending time with his host family, Burki also describes what it's like living in his hometown of Altstaetten.
Meanwhile, the Ellingson household is learning about what it's like to live with German Chrissi Lihs.
To accommodate a new person living in their home, the Ellingsons had to get an extra bed and figure out the living arrangements. After sharing with Sarah Ellingson, Lihs now has the privacy of her own room.
DHS students Anna and Sarah Ellingson said they were a little nervous at the thought of living with a new person. They "had no idea what to expect," and were "afraid she wouldn't like it here." All of their fears were put to rest when Lihs arrived and they discovered she was pretty "normal" and "fit in really well and made friends fast."
When Lihs first arrived, the Ellingsons helped her adjust to living in Oregon. "We went on trips, like to the ocean. I had never been to the West Coast before," said Lihs. "Everything is bigger and flat here, there is so much space."
Then, it was Lihs's turn to share her country with the Ellingsons. "I told them about the food, the history and nature of Germany," said Lihs. She even cooked a German meal for the Ellingsons, which took her three hours to prepare.
The Ellingson girls appreciate their glance at another culture. "It's been a lot of fun. I've learned about some of the food they eat and the differences between the countries," said Sarah. "I like having Chrissi around, I have learned about the German culture," said Anna.
One difference between the countries is how Christmas is celebrated. She said that Americans put up too many lights on their houses and "exaggerate Christmas."
Meeting Lihs has turned out to be a memorable high school experience for both girls. "Chrissi has turned into a sister to me," said Anna. Even though all three girls had to adjust to living with each other, Anna feels that it was harder for Lihs. "The host has to get used to only one person that's different. The student has to get to know and get used to every single person they live with and become friends with."
Senior Melissa Meyer agrees. "As the host, you're still living with your family and everything is familiar. As a foreign exchange student, everything is different, the language, your family, food."
Meyer and her family have hosted four students over the past six years. Since Melissa's mom, LuAnn Meyer, is a member of the Rotary Club, the whole family has had many opportunities to live with students from different cultures.
Meyer has a positive outlook on living with someone new. "It's so much fun, you get to treat them like family and help them fit in."
It was when she was helping foreign students fit in that Melissa realized something about American high school students. "It helped me to identify that Americans have a close circle of friends and that when we have foreign exchange students, it gives them a chance to widen that circle and get to know new people," she said.
Even though Meyer feels that hosting is an overall positive experience, she agrees that there are challenges. "Communication can be hard. One year, we had a girl from Japan who couldn't speak English," she said. "It couldn't have been as fun for her, not knowing the language." Also, dealing with a student's different lifestyle or habits can be challenging. When Meyer's family hosted a student from Brazil, she stayed up late and slept late. "We had to make sure she was on time," said Meyer.
Peterson recommends that other families try hosting a foreign exchange student. "You get to try new things and both ways, you have so much to learn."
"It's living with another person you can call a friend," said Meyer.
To learn more information about hosting a foreign exchange student contact
Dallas High School
Mark Trolan or Scott McLeod 503 623-8336
AFS Intercultural Programs
American Field Service
Dale & Lois Derouin 503 623-6340
Lloyd & Pat Taber 503 623-8813
Pacific Intercultural Exchange
Carol Jones 503 787-1902