Life is like something out of a movie for three 16-year-olds currently residing in Wahpeton.
Emilie Lisby is a native of Hadsten, Denmark. Jasmin Wree hails from Berlin, Germany. Cris Abelaira Virgos calls Barcelona, Spain, her home.
The trio, who are spending the 2019-2020 school year in Wahpeton, are exchange students with Education First (EF). The program sends numerous students to 15 countries and countless regions worldwide, from European cities to Asian ports to the Twin Towns Area. Laura Heitke, Breckenridge, Minnesota, is the International Exchange Coordinator for her community's two exchange students.
Lisby, Wree and Abelaira Virgos have been living in Wahpeton since the summer of 2019. Each is staying until June 2020. While being an exchange student is expensive and depends on constantly changing variables — Lisby estimates she paid 120,000 Danish kroner, or approximately $17,700, including total airfare, vaccinations and personal spending money — all agree it’s worth it.
Daily News sat down with the three young women and local EF coordinator Dawn Pehl. The conversation revealed “culture shock” is merely an idea and not insurmountable.
Daily News: How did you first become aware of the EF program?
Emilie Lisby: I saw it on the back of a youth magazine, actually. I just saw a commercial (ad) for it. It sounded nice, so I decided to research. I’d been in New York, on vacation with my family, but this is my first time outside New York in America.
Jasmin Wree: A friend of mine was interested in doing an exchange year. She thought about going with EF and I decided on going, too. This is my first time in America.
Cris Abelaira Virgos: My best friend told me about doing an exchange year and at the beginning, I wasn’t really convinced about it. He started convincing me. We started going to the EF offices and getting informed. I was here (in America) in 2016. I was in New York. Two years ago, I also traveled the Route 66 route.
DN: I notice you all have a clear command of English.
Dawn Pehl: That’s one of the requirements of EF, to have a certain level of proficiency. A lot of the countries actually require testing of the English speaking ability, to make sure when they arrive, they’re going to be able to communicate with their families, be able to understand conversation and not struggle at school. A lot of students have taken English in their native countries for years.
DN: How many languages do you speak?
CAV: My native language is Catalan, because I’m from a region of Spain with its own language. Spanish is my second language and English is my third.
JW: German and English. I learned French at school
EL: I speak Danish, English and German.
DN: What are some of the activities you like doing outside of the classroom?
CAV: I enjoy playing volleyball. It’s really good because we don’t have school sports in Barcelona. That’s one of the things I enjoy the most.
JW: I was on (Wahpeton’s) cheerleading team and I really enjoyed the away games. It was a lot of fun.
EL: I did double sports. I did cheerleading and cross county. I do a lot with my host family. I like meeting the extended part of their family, like my host mom’s parents. I like meeting all of the family.
DN: Who are your host families?
EL: I’m with the Pehls, Rich and Dawn.
DP: She’s the fifth student we’ve hosted and the third with the EF program.
JW: I’m with Brianna and Joe St. Aubin. I’m actually the seventh student they’ve hosted. The St. Aubins are pretty spontaneous and they help me a lot.
DP: Jasmin has two host sisters and a host brother here in Wahpeton.
CAV: I’m with the DeVillers, Damon and Sandy. I love spending time with them. They’re so funny and always helping me with what I need. They’re so nice.
DP: Cris is the first host daughter for the DeVillers. She has three host sisters, one that is still at home, one at college and one that lives in the Twin Cities.
DN: Dawn, you mentioned being a host parent for several years. What have you learned from the experience?
DP: One of the big things you take away is how small the world really is, how easy it is for us here to go visit any of our kids. They do become your kids. With each student, there’s a uniqueness they bring. They blend in well, feeling like they’ve always been a part of the family. It’s really crazy how fast that can happen. You start to dread the return date, when they go home. That’s really the worst part.
DN: What’s been the best part of being exchange students?
CAV: Having a new routine makes the experience what it is. I know the difference between our high school (in Barcelona) and in America. It’s something new to try.
JW: I like the high school. It’s different than back in Germany. There’s the cheerleading, because we don’t have the sport (American-style football). It’s not as popular. The teachers are different.
CAV: It’s like they care more.
DN: You get more personalized attention?
EL: I would say the schooling, too, because it’s so different. It’s like the opposite (of schooling in Europe). If you ask me, not the American high school students, it’s exactly like in the movies. If you ask the students, they’d say, no, not really. But it is, compared to what we’re used to.
DN: What’s been the most surprising part of life in America so far?
EL: I think their food is so different. They put butter on everything. They don’t eat pasta and spaghetti with ketchup. Or rice and ketchup.
CAV: I feel like everything’s different. Of course, there’s similar things, but everything’s still different. There’s the hunting and fishing. My host dad likes to do that.
EL: Or even with the kids who are driving around. We’re not old enough (for overseas licenses). It’s age 18 in my country. We’re here and it’s like, okay, everybody drives. They’re not always good drivers.
JW: There’s also ranch dressing. It’s a new experience. Everybody loves it. I don’t get it.
EL: The differences are so big. I feel like I’m living two different lives. I’m speaking a different language. I have different surroundings. I’m with a different family. I’m called a different name. There’s nothing similar, except me.
CAV: My friends are always telling me, you’re living in a movie now. You’re living 10 months in a movie.
DN: You had choices when you joined EF. What made you decide to see America?
EL: I was thinking about Australia, but decided on America because I knew how different it would be. I think everyone would say we wanted to see if it was like the movies. And I kind of got that confirmed.
JW: I wanted to see if if was like in the movies and the food and the typical American attitude. I wanted to see if it was true or not.
CAV: What you see when you’re a kid watching movies and TV series — experiencing it is what caught my attention.
DP: One of the things they’re fascinated with is walking down the cereal aisle in the supermarket.
EP: And the candy aisle.
DP: They see Cheerios and it’s not one or two brands, it’s 40. There’s plain M&Ms, but there’s also peanut, caramel, dark chocolate and peanut butter. All of that is so typical of what they see in the movies.
CAV: I live in Barcelona, which is a big city, and we don’t have stores as big as Walmart.