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Vickroy: Exchange students describe America, differences

Lee Daw(left) Oscar Martinez Paul Thiel say students their home countries have fewer academic choices. | DonnVickroy~Sun-Times Media

Lee Dawon (left), Oscar Martinez and Paul Thiel say students in their home countries have fewer academic choices. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 23, 2014 6:37AM



Every year, teens around the world step into each other’s shoes through high school exchange programs. Kids from Europe, South America and Asia come here to learn about American culture and to broaden their understanding of the world.

Recently, I sat down with five exchange students who are attending Shepard High School in Palos Heights this academic year. Like the other schools in Community High School District 218, Shepard had been welcoming exchange students for at least 15 years.

With an amazing grasp of English — some of them only spoke a few words before their plane touched down on American soil last fall — they shared their observations about teen life here compared with back home. Paul Thiel is from Germany, Lee Dawon from South Korea. Eunsun Ko from South Korea, Sara Cadena from Ecuador and Oscar Martinez from Spain.

They all said that among the biggest differences is how much say American students have in their education.

“In Germany, after middle school, there are three steps,” Paul said.

Teachers determine a student’s path, and only those chosen to enter the highest step can go on to college, although there’s some opportunity for a student to change direction if sufficiently motivated.

“So it’s very important that you do well at the early levels,” he said.

In addition to being surprised that Shepard students can take classes in art and cooking, Sara was amazed by the number of clubs and extracurricular activities available.

After enrolling in an art class for the first time, she realized she had a talent for drawing. An aspiring architect who is the only girl in her math/physics track, Sara said, “I never knew. So next semester I will take two art classes here.”

Lee and Eunsun, who live hours from each other back home, said their schools are much tougher. Students attend class on Saturdays and spend about 16 hours a weekday at school, even eating dinner there.

“Here, it is a lot easier,” Lee said.

Eunsun and Lee said their high school algebra II classes here are similar to the math classes they took in middle school back home.

In South Korea, Lee said, much of the onus for learning is directly on the students. With only four exams to base a grade on each school year, students know they have to study long and hard.

“Each test is very important,” Lee said. “There are no quizzes.”

Eunsun also said students in South Korea do not get to choose their classes, and there are few clubs and activities to join. Americans have more fun, she said, specifically citing the annual Homecoming tradition.

“Of course, I love it,” she said. “I think I’m a party person. We don’t have dance parties. It’s so awesome.”

She and Sara, who are staying together at the same host house, loved being able to choose their dress, have their hair done and wear makeup.

What Sara isn’t so sure she likes, however, is the intimate way that American teenagers dance.

“It’s really awful,” she said.

Oscar said he finds Americans to be friendly and funny.

“In general, everyone has accepted us,” he said.

American students, he said, have so many more subjects to choose from.

“In Spain, everyone takes the same classes,” he said, adding that American history was particularly enlightening.

“It was incredible, especially the first days because I heard the word Spain more than the United States. ‘This is Spanish territory.’ ‘That is Spanish territory.’ I wonder, ‘How could we have owned all this?’ ”

In Germany, Paul said, the legal drinking age is 16.

“I am 17, so I can tell you that German beer is really good,” he said, adding that teens cannot get a driver’s license in Germany until they are 18, which helps them learn to handle alcohol before they get behind the wheel of a car.

The driving age in Korea is 19, Lee said, and most teenagers rely on public transportation.

Same for Ecuadorian teens, Sara said, adding that “buses and taxis are much less expensive where I live.”

“America is really a car country. Without a car you’re in trouble,” Paul said. “Gas is really cheap here.”

Although Americans complain about the price of gas, Paul said Europeans pay much higher prices. But not for other things.

“I bought a pack of gum her for $1.40. I would pay 50 cents at home for the same mass (amount),” he said.

One thing all of the students seemed concerned about was the “visitor 15.” Athena Gomez, parent liaison and organizer of the exchange program at Shepard, said the average exchange student gains 15 pounds while here.

Eunsun said she already has put on 14; Paul, 10. Sara said the food is better back home. Fruits and vegetables have little flavor here, she said, there’s little fresh bread and “I miss my soups.”

And pretty much everyone agreed that Americans eat too much pizza.

In addition to having the courage and curiosity to want to live halfway around the world for a school year, each student possesses a sense of nationalism.

Oscar said despite the economic and political problems Spain is enduring, he is proud of his country.

“Our food is considered the best in the world. And our values are important to us,” he said. “Even though we have some problems, there’s a spirit of working, of fighting for your objectives. And the beach is nice, too.”

Sara said her country may be small, “but it has so much. The beach, the Galapagos, the mountains. I really love it.”

All of the students said they wanted to study in America for two reasons — to learn English and to see if American culture really is the way it’s portrayed in the media.

“I was surprised,” said Paul, who wants to be a pilot. “Americans are very relaxed.”

Oscar said he’s learned a lot about himself while here.

“I have made new friends. I am a new person. I am Oscar 2.0,” he said. “And the girls are great.”

Lee said he has overcome some of his shyness and being an exchange student has made him more confident. Same for Sara and Eunsun.

“I am independent,” Eunsun said. “I can live without my family and with strangers. Now I know.”

“This experience has been really amazing,” Sara said. “Our host family is great. We’re going to give them an ornament to put on the tree so they can remember us.”



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