June, 2017 — Charlotte, NC — Myers Park High School has been hosting exchange students for over 33 years. How do we know for sure? Kaare Risung was an exchange student at Myers Park High School in 1983-84. By coincidence, Elias Risung, his son, was an exchange student at Myers Park high this past year.
In the 1980s, there was no internet, no cell phones, much less information to prepare you and support you while you were gone. Kaare Risung, unlike his son, didn’t know much about America beforehand. He had such a good experience, he decided to stay for college, attending Davidson College. Kaare’s roommate his senior year became and remains his closest friend. He and Andy Ball have kept in touch all these years.
Elias Risung describes his dad as his idol. He knew how valuable the cultural experience has been to his dad, and wanted to do the same. “To become as successful as him,” says Elias.
He wanted to live with his dad’s lifelong family friend and they chose the AFS Intercultural Exchange Program to provide the infrastructure for the experience. AFS is the largest exchange program in the world, with the depth of expertise that covers 80 years, 90 countries, and 30,000 volunteers annually.
It just so happens that Andy Ball still lives in Charlotte. It was a complete coincidence that, from across the years and across the globe, Elias ended up at his dad’s high school alma mater.
He thinks there are a lot of similarities in their multicultural experiences. Myers Park is an old school. Campus looks pretty much the same. Both father and son did track with Myers Park.
Elias also played varsity soccer, his favorite sport. In Norway, to do sports you join a private club, as there are none in school. Elias also joined the Myers Park EECA marketing club. The club presented a project to help a local business at the Greensboro regional contest in February in front of judges and advanced to the international conference in Anaheim California. This is not an experience that exists in Norway.
In addition to the host family, Elias has spent time with his dad’s original host dad, who lives in the neighborhood. He knows he has made new family and friends that will last a lifetime, as he has seen it for himself.
Elias’s goal was simply experience typical American history and way of life. He admits that while Norway is a beautiful landscape, he enjoys the warmth of Charlotte. And counter to the usual Norwegian cooking style, he particularly enjoys fried foods. “Tailgating is a word I learned,” laughs Elias. “You set up a stand, open up the back of a car and enjoy friends with music and food.”
Otherwise, he shares that the typical weekday in Norway is not that different – we are more alike than not.
Elias knew it would improve his English, for his dad speaks the language perfectly. Mr. Risung is a business lawyer so he has to be able to communicate with people from other countries. He travels periodically to other countries, such as Japan, America, and throughout Europe. The principle of learning to understand different cultures helps no matter where you go. And so Dad has benefited from his exchange experience his whole life.
Potentially the most valuable, however, are the personal skills gained – confidence, adaptability, maturity, awareness, and independence. Myers Park High School is 3,000 students switching classes every period and every quarter, compared to his Norway high school of 500 students with a consistent classroom structure. At the beginning of school, not knowing anybody was uncomfortable. “I didn’t know what to say because of the language, or because I wouldn’t know culturally how to react. After a while you start to adapt, make a few friends. I got more comfortable at being in situations like that, you get used to it, and it becomes no big deal.” Being OK out of your comfort zone is the root of an exchange experience.
This year, AFS Charlotte welcomed 17 students to the Charlotte area. Students came from Argentina, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway Sweden and Thailand.
They attended the following Charlotte-area high schools: Audrey Kell, Charlotte Country Day, Cuthbertson, Forestview, Myers Park, Nation Ford, Piedmont, Providence, South Meck and Weddington.
In a few days, Elias, like the others, will go back to his last year of high school. Several of his classes here will count, so he will be able to return to join his same classmates. Yet he will have learned so much more.