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A day in the life of another

Michael Wyss and Dan Weedin have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know one another during the last four months. - Tara Lemm/Staff photo
Michael Wyss and Dan Weedin have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know one another during the last four months.
— image credit: Tara Lemm/Staff photo

Foreign exchange students share and learn life’s most valuable lessons.

NORTH END — He’s learned one of life’s most precious and revered lessons in the short four months he’s spent on U.S. soil.

Michael Wyss, a 16-year-old Rotary Youth Exchange student from the city of Burgdorf, Switzerland, in the providence of Bern, will spend the next eight months living with a host family.

Since arriving in August he already knows how to be independent, has become more mature and now recognizes the “important parts of life.”

While all invaluable experiences to put in his life’s toolbox, those often come naturally with age. But a few years before he’s an official 18-year-old adult, Michael already knows something most can only hope to discover.

“I’ve learned you’re never on your own,” Michael said with eloquent English, marked with a pronounced European accent. “There was not one person I actually knew when I came here and now they’re all my friends who will help me wherever I go. It shows me there will be people who are good to you if you are good to them, and I can be at home all over the planet.”

Michael’s story and experiences are not unique to the world of foreign exchange students and the families who host them.

When cultures, attitudes and lives of indi viduals living in tremendously different locations of the globe intertwine, the benefits both parties garnish are of paramount value.

Eyes are opened, understanding flourishes and thrives, all while life-long relationships are formed.

Neal Kellner, the Kitsap County Council for Education Travel USA (CETUSA) foreign exchange student coordinator, knows this to be true, which is why he works to partner students and families throughout Kitsap.

Kellner has so much faith in the program which he says, in a small fashion, is a larger promotion of world peace than any other single act, because it involves children.

When a student comes into a community they teach that community and learn from that community, taking that message around the world, he added.

“They bring knowledge from another country and culture in an honest way that people are willing to listen to because they’re kids, from an adult it would be propaganda,” Kellner said. “All these people whose lives cross grow up and become adults, and are they likely to declare war on that country? No. Are they likely to help them? Yes.”

On average CETUSA places 1,000 students from 45 countries each year.

Keller works with school districts and families across Kitsap to place exchange students. He said most of the area’s high schools accept four to six exchange students each year. Ideally about 20 students should be placed, he said. School districts in the county only accept students for a 10 month period, August to June, even though five month and January to January programs are available.

Kellner said each district has specific criteria they want in a student. The Bainbridge Island School District is the most particular, as academics supersede all.

“Bainbridge’s No. 1 focus is students have to be academically outstanding,” Kellner said. “The North Kitsap School District puts the cultural piece higher on the realm.”

The Bremerton School District is the most relaxed, Central Kitsap High School doesn’t accept CETUSA placements as they work closely with two other organizations, whereas Klahowya Secondary School is open to students as young as 14.

The average age for exchange students is 17 or 18, and CETUSA requires they have at minimum a B minus grade point average with quality English language skills.

While Michael isn’t here through a CETUSA exchange, he and his current host family, the Weedins of Poulsbo, are living the awesomeness of foreign exchange.

Dan Weedin, the president of the Poulsbo/North Kitsap Rotary, which is the organization that invited Michael to come, has hosted four students in 15 years, and is still in contact with most of them.

“We’ve learned about other cultures and what life is like in other countries,” Weedin said. “The biggest benefit is building life-long relationships. We’ve gotten to meet a lot of great kids and people.”

Michael’s also learned plenty about the American way of life, and an outlook that adds a fresh perspective for all who take a moment to listen to what he has to say.

Michael had no preconceived notions, other than he knew America would be big and wide, filled with vast open spaces. He discovered he was right.

But Michael experienced a bit of a jolt when he observed what an ordinary American views as common place.

“It began with the cars and refrigerators. We almost never have trucks on our roads,” he said. “The cars are bigger here and so are the refrigerators. They’re high tech with water and ice makers.”

No matter what, food is different all over, but what Michael noticed here was stunning, as in Switzerland and much of Europe the only fast food offerings are America’s two most popular chains.

“I looked out the car window and I saw fast food chain next to fast food chain and people eating it pretty often,” he said. “That was weird to see.”

The patriotism of America also caught him off guard, as it’s more pronounced than in Switzerland.

“When I first came it seemed patriotism here is enormous. There’s flags everywhere and people sing the national anthem,” Michael said. “In Switzerland that’s not the way it is.”

But once he spent a few months in his U.S. history class at North Kitsap High he’s beginning to understand America’s patriotism.

“The U.S. is so young and had a hard fight and that explained it,” he said.

Michael will finish the year as a senior at NKHS. He’s only a junior, but attending school as a senior so he can get the full experience, including walking at graduation.

In Switzerland Michael can’t pick his own classes. It’s been a real treat to choose as a Viking. He’s taking choir, weight lifting, English, U.S. history, Spanish and band.

He also tried football, just to see what it was like. He quit the team shortly after school started because his true love is jazz music and he didn’t have the time to do both band and football.

“It’s cool to be able to say I’m a retired football player,” Michael said of his days on the gridiron.

Michael flies home in July and he’ll bring with him a lot more than luggage and souvenirs. He’ll take the ability to speak great English, independence, friendships and the courage to talk freely and easily with people he doesn’t know.

Kellner and CETUSA are actively seeking host families for students who’ll arrive in August 2009. CETUSA hosts are only financially responsible for food and housing expenses. The students pay for their clothes, school expenses and personal items. Kellner works closely with both parties to ensure the family and student is a good fit. He’s also right nearby if something were to go awry, unlike most organizations that only offer a 1-800 number for support.

“My duty is to make good matches,” Kellner said. “It’s very personal and very important.”

To learn more or to apply to be a host family contact Kellner at (360) 388-3010 or neal@cmtravel4fun.com.

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