AFS-USA News

Exchange Students in Woodbury


By Cyd Haynes
Woodbury Magazine

America is a melting pot, so we enjoy the cultural richness of immigrants from many countries, but every year Woodbury hosts a number of students who aren’t here to stay—they’ve come to “exchange.” What do they exchange? Well…plenty. Three new mothers and daughters share their experience of exchanging traditions, customs, surprises and the joys of their everyday lives in newly-melded families.

Warning: Exchange programs have a long history of making fast friends of people who were absolute strangers in moments previous. Students are coached to call new family members ‘mom and dad.’ They are introduced as ‘sisters or brothers’ to their new siblings. Host families often become so fond of their foreign exchange students that they form lifelong friendships, even visiting the exchange student’s home country and family.

Many people promote the educational value of international youth exchange, but don’t let them fool you. If it weren’t for the close family ties that emerge amongst host families, filled with unparalleled personal interaction and genuine love, the cultural “sharing” would be empty. Read on and see what we mean.

Karina Asher had one daughter, now she has two.

In high school, Karina Asher was part of a “trading places” type exchange program. Her family hosted a student from Germany for six weeks during the time that she spent in Germany with the exchange student’s family. Her family also hosted a different German student for a more extended six months. Asher wanted her own children to have the same kind of enriching experience, so she and her husband Robert welcomed Joanna Przybyl into their home last fall.

Joanna hails from Poznan, Poland, a city with approximately the same population as Minneapolis and St. Paul together. She attends East Ridge High School (ERHS) along with the Asher’s daughter, Karly. “They [Karly and Joanna] hang out with Karly’s friends, watch movies, go to school and church activities,” says Karina.

The family has learned of some big differences between the South Washington County and Poznan school systems. Karina says that in Poland Joanna will sometimes bike to school, which takes her 40 minutes, “or she will take a bus to the subway then catch the train which still takes about 45 minutes.” Unlike in Woodbury, being late to class and behavior problems are also graded, and may affect a student’s chances of getting into a good high school.

Jen Aamodt had two daughters, now she has three.

Jen and Bill Aamodt have also realized some disparities in the schooling practices of their newest family member, Anna Ladegaard. “Anna did swimming in the fall and is now doing alpine skiing,” Jen says. “She is enjoying her ability to play sports for Woodbury High School (WHS) which is not something that is available in Denmark.”

Anna is getting a lot of opportunities that Jen herself never had, having nursed an unfulfilled desire to be an exchange student herself. A friend of Jen’s shared the one comment that convinced the family to be host: “There is no good time to bring a stranger into your home, so you just have to do it.”

The Aamodt girls, Maggie, 15, and older sister Pauline, 17, face new ideas due of Anna’s presence. For instance, in Europe it is normal to wear the same clothes for two or three days in a row. “So Anna adjusted to our culture and wears different clothes each day to school,” says Jen. 

And it’s not just physical customs that vary; communication styles can also be rooted in a culture. “Anna likes to discuss things strongly,” Jen says, “often asking ‘why’ about things that we just wouldn’t discuss to that level.” During exchange preparations Anna had been told not to question everything, but she finds this part of her culture harder to drop than other parts.

The Aamodts don’t mind Anna’s questioning nature. The girls get along well and since the day the family picked Anna up at the airport, daughter Maggie has followed in Jen’s footsteps, hoping to go to Finland as an exchange student.

Amy Pflieger had three kids, now she has four.

After their eldest son left for college, Amy and Paul Pflieger had an available bedroom and decided to host Louise Nordback, an exchange student from Sweden, through American Field Services. “My parents hosted exchange students from this same program when I was in high school,” Amy says. “We have remained friends with those students and still get together for vacations.”

Amy gained exchange siblings and now her children remaining at home, Kelsey and Mason, have enjoyed having a new person around the house. “Louise makes really yummy cinnamon rolls,” they say.

The new student scores well at school as well. Her English teacher at ERHS has commented that Louise does better than half of her American English-speaking students. She is also involved in both competition cheer and sideline cheer leading.

The Pflieger’s newest daughter bolsters Amy’s heartfelt recommendation, backed by years of experience, “If you have an extra room in your home and you live near a high school, give these exchange students an opportunity to study and learn here. It will most likely be a win-win situation for everyone.”

Sarah Burns had two sons, now she has a daughter, too.

Hosting an exchange student was quite the unexpected move for Sarah and Dan Burns. Their sons Henry, 12, and Oscar, 10, deal with food allergies, so the Burns were asked to recommend families they knew who understood allergies and might consider hosting an exchange student living with allergies.

“When I read the application I got chills from head to toe,” says Sarah. “Everything Natalie was interested in was something our family was interested in…tennis, skiing, track and field, photography, the great outdoors, and even speaking German and Spanish. It was like God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Look what you are going to do next year.’” Dan felt the same, and Natalie Curdova started making travel plans at home in the Czech Republic.

Natalie has a younger brother at home, so she was quick to understand and relate to her new American brothers. “Natalie and Henry listen to music on Natalie's iPod—she puts one earbud in her ear and he has the other in his,” Sarah says. “Natalie and Oscar share a love of movies and the two of them can talk movies like no two other people I know.”

For Sarah, it’s like having “a best friend and a favorite sister all in one.” And Dan has taken Natalie to father-daughter activates as well as reveled in having a tennis partner. They are both enjoying the experience of having a girl in the family.

Oscar has made his feelings clear as well, "Natalie isn't just any exchange student. She's my sister."

The U.S. had one exchange student, now they have many.

After World War II, student exchanges became popular as a way to increase understanding and tolerance of other cultures. They also served to improve language skills and broaden the social horizons of those who ventured.

Foreign students who arrive in Woodbury these days are met by support from families, volunteers and school staff. Julie Young, international exchange student coordinator at ERHS, guides foreign students in making presentations to local students and they find “the kids are very engaged and want to know about pop culture, driving and drinking laws, school and teen life in general in different countries,” she says.

“Kids learn from kids that there is no ‘right’ way to do things, just different ways,” Young says. “Exposure to other cultures is a step towards global understanding, tolerance and peace.”

The New Daughters

Natalie Curdova , Czech Republic

What has been the most surprising thing you've encountered so far?
I have never slept with a pillow that is also a pet…a pillow-pet it’s called. We never eat in the car in the Czech Republic, either, and we did that a lot on our trip while we were driving between parks. We ate cinnamon chex in cups for breakfast and one night we even had Chinese food.

What is your school (ERHS) like?
It is totally different than I imagined it to be. At first I was overwhelmed at the size. My school in the Czech Republic is smaller. There are just 150 kids in my grade and 800 in my school which has 8 grades. East Ridge is really modern.

Anything else about being an exchange student in Minnesota?
Minneapolis is a great city. I just love the skyscrapers. You have so many lakes and boating on them is really fun. The University of MN football games are very exciting. I like the outdoor stadium; we don't have that in the Czech Republic.

Joanna PrzybyƂ, Poland

What surprises you here?
I was surprised that people drive their car everywhere. Even if they want to get somewhere, where walking would take five minutes they go there by car.

What is your school (ERHS) like?
It is awesome, that students here can choose their classes. In Polish high school you can only decide what kind of classes you would like to study on advanced level.

Anything interesting about being an exchange student in Minnesota?
When I applied for this program, I hoped for placement in any state where it is warm for the whole year. My brother was laughing at me saying that I will go to Alaska. When I got information that my host family lives in Minnesota he was laughing even harder and said; “See, I told you! Maybe it is not Alaska, but it is almost the same!" At the beginning I was terrified but now I am glad I am here.

Louise Nordback, Sweden

What is your school (ERHS) like?
Big! I really like how all the sports and clubs are connected to school. In Sweden we only have private clubs.

What are you interested in studying as you get older?
I am thinking about doing something technical, like industrial design and product development. But I am not sure. I change my mind every day.

What has been the most surprising thing you've encountered so far?
In Sweden I take the bus or tram everywhere, because we are not allowed to drive till we are 18. It feels weird having to ask someone to drive you every time you are going somewhere.

Anna Ladegaard, Denmark

Why did you want to become an exchange student?
My mom was an exchange student. I thought it would be an interesting experience.

What has been the most surprising thing you've encountered so far?
The differences in how we celebrate Christmas… in Denmark we celebrate Christmas on your Christmas Eve. We dance around the Christmas tree and we have real candles on our trees.

What is your school (WHS.) like?
Very different than our schools at home because we switch classrooms every hour compared to in Denmark where the teacher comes to you.

Any other comments about Woodbury?
It's cold!

Read the original article here. This story features two AFS host families, the Pflieger and Aamodt families. Photo: Jen Aamodt had two daughters, now she has three.