Senior year is full of lasts for many students — the last day of school, the last football game or thankfully your last math test. For three foreign exchange students, it was full of firsts — first prom, first homecoming and first time in Pierre, South Dakota.
Matyas Pribyl, from Germany, Anouk Fontjne, from the Netherlands, and Peder Toemte, from Norway, are all a part of a student exchange program through Education First that helps place students around the world to experience different cultures.
While all three teens said they were excited to experience the United States, they didn’t know a whole lot about South Dakota.
“When I was signing up I was kind of silently hoping for like New York or Colorado or something and then when I heard that I was going to South Dakota, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Matyas said.
Anouk said she had never even heard of South Dakota before she found out she’d be going there.
“I had to look South Dakota up. I didn’t know it existed, but it’s nice,” Anouk said.
Matyas and Peder both said they had to do some research on South Dakota before coming because they didn’t know much about the state itself.
“I didn’t really know the state before. But I really like it here, it’s a very quiet place. It’s nice to live here for sure,” Matyas said.
It can be very hard to leave home, especially leaving the entire continent. As you can imagine, the students were understandably a little nervous.
“Well, I was a little nervous when I came here, but I had a very warm welcome here in Pierre,” Matyas said.
While it was nerve-racking all of the students agreed that it was an easy decision for them to make. Matyas said he was supposed to come to the U.S. last year, and that gave him more time to prepare before arriving.
“So it was kind of a natural thing almost because I already was expecting to be living here for a long time,” Matyas said.
Anouk said that while she made her decision much later, deciding to take the opportunity right before summer. But she didn’t regret it and said she was happy with the decision.
Peder had decided to do the exchange program even later than Anouk and had a slimmer chance of actually getting to the U.S. He said he didn’t even get to meet his host family until a couple of weeks before he was set to leave.
“I didn’t know. Until two weeks before I left, they told me I had a 50/50 chance of leaving because of COVID and then there was only one host family left and then they hadn’t decided yet, but then two weeks before my departure, they said that they would take me in,” Peder said.
Host families can play a huge role in how well the year goes for them, but luckily for them, they were able to get pretty good host families for their school year.
“I think I got a very, very good host family and I’m very grateful for them, including me in their community, just from the beginning of my exchange here,” Matyas said.
Peder attributed good host family and exchange student connections with Education First’s ability to match exchange students to families they will have more in common.
“This program, they find families and students that match with what they like and stuff. So, I feel like they do a great job with matching and I really liked my family here too,” Peder said.
When living with a different family or going to a different school in a different country, exchange students are bound to come across a few culture shocks during their time here. Most of these shocks came from school or the more dominant presence of agriculture here.
“I’d say the biggest culture shock was the state fair to me, in Huron, ‘cause I come from a bigger city from Berlin, Germany, where like the farm life, the ranch life, it’s not really big. So it was really, really different when I came here and then I saw what people do when they’re in agriculture and they have cattle and everything,” Matyas said.
Peder said his biggest culture shock was how sports were organized within schools instead of separate from them.
“In Norway, we don’t have school sports. So if you want to do a sport, you have to sign up for a club. And that makes it a lot harder to get to know people or try different sports,” Peder explained. “Like here, you can just hop on a sport and you were included. If you sign up for a
club, I feel like they expect more because you’re signing up here, just joined for fun. Which I really like,” Peder said.
Peder, Anouk and Matyas all participated in school sports while they were attending T.F. Riggs High School. Peder played soccer and Anouk did track and field. Matyas played a variety of sports including football, soccer, hockey and tennis.
Another thing that was very different from their home countries was the school spirit activities.
“I think school is a lot different for me too because you have the school spirit, all the football games, basketball games. I don’t have that, but I like it that way. It makes you have friends a lot easier and get included,” Anouk said.
They also didn’t have prom or homecoming weeks in their home countries.
“Prom was very fun. I think we did not have a homecoming dance, but the homecoming week was very cool because it was something like you see on the movies, just like prom,” Peder said.
All of them agreed they wished European schools had their own versions of homecoming, prom or pep rallies.
Anouk added that it makes time at school a little better.
“I mean, it kind of makes school a lot more fun,” Anouk said.
There were lots of things that they enjoyed about going to school in the U.S. but they all thought that the class schedules had too much routine. Matyas said American schools have a set schedule every day with the same classes. But he said it’s different in Germany where students could have 15-17 with a different schedule every day.
Peder also said that it got a little boring having that schedule every day.
“Same classes, to the same time every day, it just got very repetitive,” Peder said.
Matyas added that it’s harder to meet new people when you have that same schedule every day and he noticed the same people in the halls during his daily routine.
“Today we had the graduation practice thing and I’ve never seen like 50 percent of the people. I was just walking past the same people all year,” Matyas said on Friday.
But, they all agreed that the experience, meeting new people and understanding other cultures make the experience worth it.
“You get to know new people. You make new friends, you experience life in America. You get to know culture differences, you get to appreciate culture differences. And I mean, the thing for me was the reason that I was going here in the first place was to improve my English,” Matyas said.
While it was hard for them to be away from home for so long Peder said his parents were understanding and supportive in letting him gain the experience.
Matyas said that his parents were the ones who showed him the exchange program, came up with the idea and asked him if he was interested.
“Because it would be a cool thing to do and I agreed to it,” Matyas said.
His parents, Miroslav and Karolina Pribyl, were both very supportive of their son spending his school year in the U.S. Miroslav said he found it’s important for his son to experience other cultures.
Miroslav said people need to understand other people from around the world and having his child here exposed him to other cultures and definitely benefited his life. But Miroslav added it can be hard letting your child go overseas.
“Well, it’s definitely a big difference for a mum and for a father,” Miroslav explained. “So for me, it’s like, well, they are 17, 18, so it’s, they should be able to manage it. So they did of course. For mom, it is still a small boy or small daughter, and so it’s definitely hard to send them to somewhere. Somewhere where you definitely don’t know where the kid is landing,” Miroslav said.
Miroslav said it can be scary when you don’t know the host family very well and all you can do is hope they get placed with a family that is welcoming.
“You don’t know if the host family will be a good one or bad one and you just hope (for) the best, but it’s not always the case. So that’s why we were very grateful that our son just could land here in this family, which was just fantastic,” Miroslav said.
Amanda and Jason Dodson are international exchange coordinators with Education First and they help place exchange students in the Pierre area. Their family also hosted Matyas, who is not the first student they’ve hosted.
The Dodsons have hosted three students themselves, but have placed about 20 students in the community. Amanda said that it’s not only a great way for them to expose themselves to other cultures but great for their kids as well.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to expose our children to different cultures and different countries, different values, different religions and just really allow them to learn about the world around us,” Amanda said.
Jason and Amanda have had great experiences hosting exchange students and Jason said that a big part of their success is good communication and that it can be hard if you don’t.
“If you’re a good communicator and you can communicate with the student, you’re going to have a fantastic year. But if you can’t communicate, then it’s rough because you need to be able to, to console them when they’re down. But you also need to be firm and you need to be open and honest with them and be direct,” Jason said.
Jason and Amanda said it’s a lot of fun to be a host family in the exchange program and they are more than willing to answer any questions families may have about hosting an exchange student.
They also agreed that hosting these kids gives them a lifelong place in their lives.
“You really do care about them because they are so far away from their own parents and they are kids. I mean, they’re kids, they’re 17-, 18-year-old kids,” Amanda said.
And Jason found another great benefit to hosting foreign exchange students.
“The biggest benefit overall is that we have another family,” he said.