Several local families experienced cultural exposure without leaving home as part of a foreign exchange student program that placed more than a dozen students in Marion County this year. Mike and Mandi Brouillette of Hillsboro, Duane and Janna Duerksen of Goessel, and Lewis and Carrie Unruh of Peabody all said the benefits of hosting foreign students for a school year in their home was a rewarding experience.
“It’s been a great year,” Mandi Brouillette, host parent of Laura Angresius, a German girl attending Hillsboro High School, said. “We have all enjoyed learning about the German culture and it makes us take a closer look at why we do what we do.”
Brouillette, her husband, Mike, and their three children Bryce, 12, Brant, 10 and Brooklyn, 9, had never hosted an exchange student before this year so didn’t really know what to expect.
“Our daughter has been thrilled to have another girl in the house,” she said. “Even our boys didn’t complain. I have been very happy how she fit right into our family and we all were able to learn so much from each other.”
Angresius, who participated in volleyball, basketball, track, newspaper production, and theater groups at HHS, was placed with the Brouillette family by Carol Duerksen of SHARE! Central States organization.
The SHARE! high school exchange program is a global non-profit educational program. Duerksen, a coordinator from rural Goessel, placed 76 foreign exchange students in Kansas this year, and said she spends a lot of time reviewing profiles and making sure good matches are made for the benefit of everyone involved.
“I look to match kids up with families that like to do similar activities,” Duerksen said. “It helps if they have similar family situations as well.”
Brouillette said Duerksen approached them with the idea of hosting an exchange student and they thought it sounded like something fun to try.
“We had never considered something like this before, but we saw on her (Angresius’) profile that she had siblings about the same ages as our children and that she liked football. Plus she had a good English score. She was a good fit,” Brouillette said.
Brouillette said the most difficult part of the whole experience for them was wondering how to parent a teen-age girl.
“We’ve never done that before, but she was so bright. Now the hardest part will be saying goodbye. I am sure there will be a lot of tears,” she said.
Janna Duerksen and her family of Goessel hosted Isabelle Hueben of Germany this year. They recently changed their host daughter’s ticket home, moving it back several more days to be able to spend time together on one more family trip before letting go.
“We have had such a wonderful year with her,” Duerksen said. “She loves to spend time with our children and it’s been so nice to have her around.”
Duerksen, her husband Duane, and two children Dawson, 9, and Adrianna, 5, like to travel visiting relatives and along with Hueben, have made it to 11 states this year, including New Mexico, Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, Colorado, South Dakota, and Nebraska. They plan to take a Memorial Day weekend trip to Mahoney State Park in Nebraska before Hueben goes home to Germany.
When they are not traveling, Hueben found time to immerse herself in Goessel High School activities and particularly enjoyed the music department, Duerksen said.
“She has just been amazing,” Duerksen said. “She jumped right into learning digital piano composition, upright bass, guitar, singing, and several other instruments. Sometimes we wondered if we were letting her do too much, but it has been great to see her enjoyment in it all.”
Hueben took vocal and bass solos to regional competition and qualified for state, along with several of her American high school peers.
Duerksen said the best part of hosting an exchange student was the cultural lessons her own children gained.
“We have enjoyed learning about her traditions and what her family does for Christmas and other holidays,” Duerksen said. “She loves to bake and we’ve all enjoyed sharing that with her.”
Duerksen said it would be very difficult to say goodbyes when this school year ended in May, but their family was already making plans to visit Germany in two years and find Hueben again.
Lewis and Carrie Unruh of Peabody, also host parents this year, found themselves also postponing the return ticket of their exchange student guest, Martin Reich of Germany.
“We wanted him to have the chance to go to the Kansas State High School track meet the last weekend in May, so we changed his tickets,” Lewis Unruh said. “He has really enjoyed participating in track and long jumping.”
The Unruhs hosted another exchange student four years ago and knew what to expect this time with Reich, but they appreciated anew the cultural exchange.
“We just enjoy learning about his way of life and how he views things,” Unruh said. “It was a positive experience for us.”
In addition to track, Reich was involved in basketball and football at Peabody-Burns High School.
“We got a kick out of him getting a chance to play in a varsity game. It was only the second one he had ever seen, let alone played in,” Unruh said. “But he is very adaptable and a very quick learner.”
Unruh said the most difficult part of hosting an exchange student this time for them was transportation. They are parents of three grown sons who no longer live in the area. Carrie still works in the school system but her schedule does not often coincide with Reich’s plans.
“Last time when we did this, we still had a cousin close by that was in school and could take our student where they needed to go, but this time we had to make sure we were available to transport to all the activities and practices. That gets hard,” he said.
Despite that difficulty, Unruh said American parents and students could learn a lot from the foreign students who participate in the exchange programs.
“We’ve always been impressed with how responsible these kids are,” he said. “Martin never complains about having to do homework, and he is translating it into another language! He just comes home, sits right down, and gets it done. He gets good grades, has good work habits and a good attitude. We’ve really enjoyed getting to know him.”
Carol Duerksen said that most exchange students fit in with their assigned families well, but every once in a while things do not go as planned.
“We had one young man from Thailand go home early this year,” she said. “He came from an urban setting and was very addicted to just playing video games all the time. That was difficult for the rural family he was placed with to deal with and they were all ready for it to be over.”
Duerksen said her organization looked for students willing to try new things with active interests.
“The biggest difference in the experiences of these students and their host families is how well they have been prepared for the experience,” she said.
Her own experience with SHARE! spans almost 20 years and she is currently looking for help in matching families with exchange students. She can be reached at (620) 367-8432.