Britton Makes Impression On Exchange Kids
“Not only are you going to the middle of America, you are going to the middle of nowhere in the middle of America.”
Laura Blume, 17 year old exchange student from Schwerin, Germany recalls what her father had to say when she found out she would spending her school year in Britton, South Dakota.
She cried for three days.
At the time, she only knew the location she was headed to, she didn’t know her host family would be Lynn and Allen Claeys or that her exchange sister would be 15 year-old Abril Armengol Palomino from Lleida, Catalonia, Spain.
Abril’s family had a similar reaction to her placement in South Dakota teasing that “she will make lots of cow friends” and that she could look forward to “lots of fun farming.”
“I was thinking I would be going to California, Santa Monica, or some big city and have surfer friends, but no, I ended up here with cowboys and farmers,” Abril remembers.
Students participating in the exchange program can pay an extra $1000 to have a little more control of where they are placed, but they both decided to leave it up to the luck of the draw.
The girls quickly embraced small town U.S.A.
Laura points out the movie theatre and cute little stores on Main Street as her favorite part of Britton and once was afraid that the nearest Walmart was an hour away. Now she would rather just stay in Britton because, “We have everything here. Anything you need.”
Abril loves that “in Britton, the community is just so generous and friendly to everyone. You feel like at home.”
When the school year started they joined volleyball, cheer, track and took stats for basketball. Abril also landed a role in the all school play.
Allen and Lynn have been empty nesters for quite a few years and admitted that being on the go to attend all of the extracurricular events during the week wore them out a little but “kept us young.”
Although the high school experience is much different than in their home countries, it has been a highlight of the year for both girls. They weren’t expecting academics to co-exist with school activities and social events.
“In Europe, school is school. Just academics. No sports or anything.” Abril pointed out.
Laura added, “We became state champs! I got to experience a big high school football final.”
That memory is one she will hold dear forever.
Abril agrees that the state championship was memorable and “the school and sport spirit, the people are just amazing. It was really intense.”
In Germany, Laura is a junior and will have to repeat her junior year once she gets home. She will then go through her senior year and graduate high school. She is a multilingual student who speaks German and English fluently and takes French and Latin classes as part of her curriculum in Germany.
Abril is a sophomore and will receive credit in Spain for the time she spent in the American classroom. She is fluent in Spanish Catalan and English and speaks a little German. She can also understand some French Portuguese and Italian.
The students were required to register for U.S. history and English as well as one unit of math or science at Britton-Hecla and were able to fill the rest of their schedules with elective courses.
The expectations of the American high school experience were set by watching films like High School Musical. The girls were disappointed that there was no big homecoming dance as you see in many films about American teenagers, but prom made up for it.
In their countries there are no proms, although Germany does have a formal dance where students from all the high schools in the area are invited to buy a ticket and attend the event. There is no grand march or post prom party like they experienced here.
Abril turned 16 during her time in America and Allen and Lynn hosted a dance to celebrate at the Community Building with Rocktail Entertainment providing the DJ service.
American pop and rap music are popular all over the world and are the first choice of young people in Europe. Lynn recalls Rocktail owner Austin Sasker commenting on the play list they submitted for the party.
“He told us that the play list looked like what the teenagers are listening to today, but in all honesty he wouldn’t be able to play much of it at prom due to lyrical content,” said Lynn.
“I told him if he couldn’t play it at prom, don’t play it for our party. And the kids danced the night away and had just the best time with ‘normal’ music.”
One of the most unexpected cultural divides has been the restrictions that American society puts on teenagers. School dress codes stand out to them as oppressive, if not unfair, to girls especially. They both commented that in Europe there are no dress codes for school and students are a bit more stylish and fashion forward. You wouldn’t see kids wearing sweatpants to school.
Abril and Laura both arrived in New York last August for a three-day orientation along with about 80 other students from all over the world that were being placed with host families all throughout the U.S. At this point the girls were able to meet as they knew they were going to be housed together and would be spending the school year as sisters.
During orientation they were instructed on how to conduct themselves with their host families and given tips on how to settle in once they were placed. They were also informed of the strict rules they were to follow as participants that emphasized no driving, no drinking and no drugs.
Neither of the teens drive in their home countries. In Germany you can get a license at 17 to drive with your parents or 18 to drive on your own. Spain also sets the driving age at age 18.
“Imagine a 17 year old boy from Britton, SD, going to Europe and being told, ‘you can’t drive a car,’ he would be like ‘yes, I can drive a car. I’ve been driving since I’ve been 14 years old.’” Laura relayed.
A family vacation to Florida allowed Laura to connect with a good friend who is also participating in the exchange program and the topic of driving came up.
“Her host family does not allow her to ride in the car with other teenagers.”
Laura feels lucky that most of her friends from BHHS have had Mrs. Claeys as a teacher, so they know each other and there is already some trust, and all the kids in South Dakota are driving.
The Claeys also had a chance to take their exchange daughters on a camping trip to the Black Hills. Although they love spending family time in general, both girls enjoyed camping as a stand-out experience.
“At first,” said Laura, “I was like, camping? In a tent with spiders . . . I was a little nervous.”
Abril had never camped in a camper before, but had been camping in the past.
They both agreed it was awesome, a definite favorite memory of their time in South Dakota. The beauty of the natural landscape and the people also top the list of what makes our state special to them. The weather, not so much.
The community of about 90,000 where Laura is from in Germany does experience all four seasons, but not as extreme as we get in the Glacial Lakes region.
“It does not get as cold in the winter or as hot in the summer.” “And when it rains, it’s like ‘oh, it’s raining in Germany.’”
Allen volunteered a comparison, “more like Washington state.”
Abril said her city-town of 100,000 in Spain has a more mild climate overall.
Having just over three weeks left in the United States the girls have started reflecting on their time with their host family and what they will be taking back to share with their fellow countrymen.
American candy was a big disappointment for the girls. They were so looking forward to trying our sweet treats but they found most are too artificially flavored to be enjoyable.
Luckily, Laura’s grandmother keeps the family supplied with their more preferred German candies.
As an afterthought, Laura wanted to be clear that “Peanut Butter M&M’s are good. Really good!”
Laura is a pickier eater in general and can’t quite get on board with the American’s love of Mexican food, with the exception of taco salad.
Abril is more adventurous and hasn’t found anything that she doesn’t like, but has found an American favorite in biscuits and gravy.
Lynn and Allen had both raised families and were prepared for two teenagers under the same roof. They were perhaps more prepared than the girls, who are both the only child in their families.
“They have had their ups and downs, but it’s been wonderful,” said Lynn. “Sundays can get pretty wild. There are three languages going on and one girl is over here talking with her family on the phone and the other over here talking with her family.”
Lynn and her late husband, Steve Glover, had hosted exchange students in the past while living in the Hecla School District back in the ‘90’s. She reflected on some of the changes she noticed since her original experience as a host mother.
“It is way different. Technology is different and there was no computer Facetime and calling whenever you want. There were once a month phone calls and they were planned and they were expensive. I think the kids in the past settled in quicker because of that. They made friends quicker.”
Abril and Laura have participated in most of the same activities, take a couple of common classes, and even see each other at lunch. But their relationship is just like having an actual sister. They can fight like sisters and still love each other like sisters.
When looking through profiles after being encouraged to host again by a friend, Lynn chose Abril because as a teen she tried to go to Spain as an exchange student.
The Claeys had not originally planned on hosting two students, but there came a need for an additional host family and when the coordinator noticed they had room for one more, they just asked them to do it.
Lynn heard German students were a lot of fun and chose Laura at that point to join the family.
The students also had to sign off on sharing a host family and found out about a month before their arrival that they would have an exchange sister.
At first the girls had thoughts of having a couple of hours a day set aside for alone time and privacy.
They quickly became family oriented in the house and began to congregate around the dining room table for homework and a nightly game of Allen and Lynn’s favorite marble game, Back Up.
Al likes to say that was a strong factor in accepting two students, so they had the four players needed for the game.
“They are definitely the underdogs,” Al joked. “But, we also taught them trash talk and they have mastered that.”
Laura prides herself in not getting homesick since she has been in Britton.
“I think I was a little bit sad on my birthday, otherwise, I never had bad homesickness. Not even on Christmas!”
Abril was admittedly very homesick the first month, but day by day it got better and now she is feeling what she calls “reverse homesick” thinking of her return to Spain.
Neither set of parents will find time to visit while their daughters are studying here in the U. S., but Laura says it is a priority for her to come back with her father to meet Allen and Lynn and experience Britton and South Dakota with herself as the tour guide.
Both girls have traveled quite extensively around Europe as well as making visits to Africa and Asia. Abril also had been to Mexico and the Dominican Republic in the past.
Despite having been around the world, Abril had always dreamed of studying at least a year in America. When she told her English Academy of her desire to do this, they showed her the way to get the application process started.
She said there was really no way to prepare for the experience aside from studying vocabulary, but nothing will prepare you for what you will face.
“You cannot train your emotions or your feelings because it is the first time that you are going to become an exchange student. You don’t know what you are going to go through. You can say goodbye to all your friends, to your family, write how you feel and get mentally ready for being homesick.”
Laura had a more lighthearted approach. She heard of the exchange program through friends who had participated, so she was able to talk with them and she watched lots of YouTube videos by exchange students in preparation for her year abroad. She also attended a couple of preparation camps put on by her exchange program organization.
She would tell any students thinking of participating in an exchange program, “Do it! Even though it might seem extremely hard, it will be worth it. You will learn and grow more in one year than you will ever expect.”
Abril echoes the sentiment.
“I would say please do it if you feel it because it is your soul that needs to do it. And don’t worry if you get afraid before you take that plane alone because it is the beginning of something that you will remember all of your life. This experience is going to make you think and act on your own. You are going to grow up as an adult and face real life situations.”
In addition to the Black Hills and Florida trips the girls have enjoyed shopping in Minneapolis and Fargo; and thanks to Abril misplacing her passport, an impromptu family vacation to Chicago was in order. To replace a passport issued in another country, the choices are Chicago or Miami.
Abril particularly loved Chicago and said it reminded her of being in a European city.
“It was nice to have that feeling of being in Europe, even for just a short time.”
Anywhere they go together as a family is their favorite place and of the places they have visited, nothing beats Britton.
The best thing about America according to Abril is the way of living.
“I just love the United States.”
Laura can’t help but be left with the impression, “everything is bigger.”
As a host family Lynn says that the requirements are pretty simple.
“You just need to be able to love and treat them as your own. Patience and empathy are a must. I try to be the parent that I would want for one of my children if they were in another country. You also need a home where they have their own space.”
Loving them as their own has been no problem for the Claeys.
“Abril is the most bubbly, happy, upbeat, intelligent space cadet that I know! She has brought more laughs, the deep guttural laughs, to our home than we have had in a long time. If there is something to misplace or lose (like a passport) Abril is the one to do it. I will miss her happy-go-lucky personality and all the love she has to give,” said Lynn.
“And Laura is the strong, sensitive, sensible, very intelligent German with red hair. She calls herself a ginger and when she lets herself be Laura, watch out! She has such a great sense of humor and wisdom of life. She keeps us all laughing too.”
There are many local coordinators in the area always looking for homes for students. They have already begun the search for host families for the next school year.
If you might be interested in hosting a student or multiple students you can contact area coordinator Vicky Moser at (605) 216-1299.