Home Archives May 16, 2012


Exchange students reflect on their Nicholas County year

by Josh Shepherd

As another school year closes, Nicholas County gears itself for the emotional task of saying goodbye to another set of exchange students. It has been said many times over that the most unwelcome aspect of spring, especially for those who have developed friendships or kinships with these visiting students, is saying goodbye to them, knowing that they will be hundreds if not a thousand or so miles away by the next day.

Nicholas County High School was home to three such students this year: Polo Gabilondo of Morales, Mexico – a city of approximately four million people; Mona Behle of Würdinghausen, Germany – a village of a similar size in population to Carlisle; and Ramona Asal of Aftersteg, Germany – population 300. Of the three students, Ramona was the only one who commented on how she had to adjust to life in a town bigger than her home community.

Polo is an exchange student sponsored through the Carlisle Rotary Club and enjoyed the experience of living with two host families - Steve and Cindy Scalf for the first half of the year and Tom and Bonnie Metcalfe for the remaining time. Ramona and Mona, participants in the Education First (EF) foreign student exchange program, spent their entire 10 months living with one host family. Ramona lived out on the farm on Jackstown Road with Jackie and Leatha Howard, Mona spent her time on the outskirts of Myers Station with Josh and Pam Shepherd.

Before reflecting on their time spent as Nicholas Countians, each student was asked to recall what they envisioned Kentucky life would be when the first received news that the Bluegrass state is where they would spend their exchange year.

"I thought Kentucky was an imaginary place, like it was just the name of a chicken restaurant," Ramona said. Polo and Mona had also heard about the Kentucky Derby, but that was the extent of anyone’s experience with the Commonwealth. Both had visited Florida before and Polo had also been to Texas and Alaska.

Mona had fixed in her mind that life in the United States was either a city apartment large enough to accommodate five young adults or clusters of houses close together in a cul-de-sac like in Desperate Housewives.

When news got to each student that they were going to live in Carlisle, they immediately went to Wikipedia and they looked up the addresses of their host families in the street view section of Google maps.

And they each described the same thing.

"There were no houses. There were fields and trees, but I couldn’t see any people," Mona said.

"It was just a road and there was a forest. And that was it!" Polo said.

Ramona looked forward to living in a bigger place. The pictures she saw of Carlisle were so much different than her town. "Carlisle looked to me…" Ramona pauses to think of the right word, "…like sort of a cowboy town."

For the girls, Carlisle’s size did not present much of a change for them. Polo, however, was used to city life. But the fact that he would live for several months in a small town did not intimidate him, except, perhaps, for the possibility of snakes. Before he left, his family and friends teased him about watching out for all the snakes.

"It was no small bit of culture shock when I first arrived in Carlisle. I thought it was a very beautiful downtown. Mr. Scalf asked if I wanted to go straight to their home or tour Carlisle. I asked to look around. Fifteen minutes later, we were done," Polo said and smiled.

It took very little time after they settled in with their host families for Carlisle to feel like home. That is one aspect of Nicholas County life in which all three students agreed. They were welcomed warmly and treated well from the very moment they arrived.

All three students knew English well enough to get by in the first few months. Ramona admitted, though, that there were some rough spots for her early on when trying to communicate. She tended to smile and say "yeah," when someone said something she didn’t understand.

Whether it was rural German villages or the cluster of homes in the suburbs of a large Mexican city, all three students remarked on how unusual it was for them to see how spread out people were in Kentucky. They remarked on the distance between small towns and even on the distance between people in the same county.

Mona compared her Nicholas County experience to small town life in Germany. Most people in Würdinghausen, she explained, live in the downtown area. It is not difficult to walk or bike to a friend’s house or even to bike to the next village, which is only about five minutes away. Because of gas prices being so high – approximately $7-8 US dollars a gallon! – bicycles are a popular and often necessary way for people to get around. There are bike paths everywhere and all main highways have designated bike lanes. But more than that, people just tend to live closer to one another, she said.

All three students had host families who lived out in the country with few, if any, next door neighbors. Almost all their friends lived out in the country, too. After school ended, they kept in touch with friends more by texting and messaging on their phones than seeing them and hanging out with them.

The other significant contrast was going to school. All cherish the memories they already have of classes and the activities in which they involved themselves. But the difference in the way education works in the United States took some getting used too.

In some ways, going to school in Kentucky was very laid back. Students did not dress up as much for classes and, because their year here would not count as a year in school back at home, none of the students took a very demanding academic schedule.

What they did not count on, though, was the formality of a regular daily schedule. In both Mexico and Germany, class schedules change daily. They repeat the schedule on a weekly basis, but they do not have the same classes every day. They also have more subjects that they study in an academic year.

Even in as small a school as Nicholas County, they each had different types of experiences and developed close friendships that they hope will endure.

But what of the future? Will their connection with Carlisle fade as they board their planes for home this summer?

Mona plans to return this holiday season to pass on her Snow Queen crown. Ramona can’t wait to return for the Blackberry Festival this summer, and Polo simply expressed a desire to come back. Besides family and friends, each was asked what they would miss most about Kentucky life.

Polo: The peacefulness and my lazy life.

Mona: Free drink refills at restaurants. And all the television channels, we don’t have so many at home.

Ramona: Curly Fries! Biscuits and Gravy! And Sheba! But I won’t miss pulling cows. That was awful.

But there is one thing they all agree on – for each of them, Nicholas County is home.

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