Foreign students immersed in local culture

The Capital (Annapolis, MD), September 27, 2004, page A1
By: Kimberly Marselas


It wasn’t the rotating block schedule or taking his first elective courses that threw Annapolis High School junior Martin Eller for a loop.

No, the 16-year-old German exchange student was just used to having more time to regroup during the academic day.

“What I absolutely don’t like is that we have only five minutes between the classes,” said Mr. Eller, who got two, 25-minute breaks in addition to a lengthy lunch period at his Frankfurt high school.

Principals and guidance counselors here say they’ve welcomed at least 13 exchange students, all of whom are coping with learning new schedules and customs and giving up liberties they were used to in their own countries.

After earning a 10-month trip to America through the Council on International Educational Exchange, Mr. Eller settled in with former Annapolis mayor Dick Hillman and his family in a historic house just steps from the Historic State House and enrolled in classes at Annapolis High. He’s accompanied there by fellow German Dana Hoeppenstein.

Other principals may admit as many – or as few – foreign exchange students as they wish. Most host just one or two a year. Old Mill High School, however, has four students: two from Germany and one each from Finland and Switzerland.

Although his school is closed to in-county transfers, Broadneck Guidance Counselor Joe Kozik is willing to accept foreign students because they add to the school environment, whether in the classroom, in the band or on the athletic field.

Students here for a full year or even a semester register for classes and may participate in all extracurricular activities.

“I always like to hook these kids up with other students and get them socializing,” Mr. Kozik said. “You have to make them feel comfortable and confident… We make them joiners.”

The same privileges don’t extend to foreign exchange students who stop by for a week or two, sitting in on a few classes without enrolling.

Twenty-one students from in and around the city of Caceres in Spain spent the last three weeks living in Edgewater, attending classes with South River High School students and touring Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Beatriz Rebollo, 17, stayed with Jack and Sherri Hennen and their 10th-grade daughter, Jacklyn. They treated her to weekend excursions to Ocean City and New York.

During the days they went to class, the students attended their host siblings’ courses or hung out with foreign language teachers, who used them as cultural resources.

Other times, they got away to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., or to Arundel Mills mall in Hanover.

“Spanish girls are always about fashion and clothes, so they loved going to the mall,” said Daniel Alonso.

He should know. In five years, he’s escorted seven groups of Spanish teenagers on similar trips serving as a translator, a counselor and an emergency manager when crises arise.

“Most of them, it’s their first time here,” he said, watching as the teens filled out trip evaluation forms before a pool party and old-fashioned American potluck dinner Wednesday. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and they’re loving it.”

Foreign perspective

Some trip organizers say families are becoming more interested in sending their children to the Washington and Baltimore region again.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many placement firms stopped recruiting host families in the area because of security concerns.

Joann Smith, a local coordinator for the Intercultural Friends Foundation, said it is a little easier to convince groups to send students here now, although overall numbers still lag below pre-Sept. 11 levels.

“I think they are feeling more secure, but I think we’re still getting fewer groups than we did before,” she said.

Because the school system’s central office no longer tracks the number of temporary international students, it’s unclear whether there are actually more exchange students here this year.

But the ones who do come are glad to immerse themselves in a different culture. They’re also quick to shape opinions.

In hesitant but clear English, Rocio Entonado and some of her fellow travelers recounted some of the differences they’d discovered between Americans and Spaniards.

“We are more formal with shoes, no sports clothes,” she said, dolled up for a farewell party in a pair of smart heels and dark blue blazer.

“The cities are cleaner, much cleaner than in Spain,” said Sylvia Lopez, 17.

“But the houses are dirtier,” chimed in Nushin Azimi, 17.

Mr. Hillman said Mr. Eller is showing up his son, Jacob, by making the bed each morning – and sitting down to homework as soon as he gets back from school each afternoon.

But Mr. Eller, as most foreign exchange students, also is finding plenty of time for fun and new experiences.

A Christian, he recently attended synagogue with the Hillmans for Rosh Hashanah. He’s also taken a liking to American football, which only made its debut at his high school about five years ago.

Besides his desire for more downtime at school, Mr. Eller’s only other major disappointment seems to be his limited transportation options.

At 16, Mr. Eller is too young to drive in his own country, and exchange trip rules forbid him from driving while in America.

At home, the subway “comes right to our door,” and he usually biked to school.

Now, he’s getting rides to school with a nearby senior and taking a city bus home after rehearsals for “Father of the Bride,” in which he will play wedding coordinator Joe. He’s the one without the accent.

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