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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Gray Matter: Foreign student experiences rewarding

Monday, September 26, 2005

Over the years, a number of you have experienced the pleasure of sharing your home with a foreign student.  This year, at least one area school has two exchange students, one from Poland and the other from Germany.  I am sure that both these students and their host families are in for a  challenging and rewarding experience. 

Today's programs, weren't in existence in our time; besides, our family was probably too large, and our house too small, to have done it successfully.  Still, we did  participate in a sort of precursor to those programs, many years ago, with wonderful lasting results  which I would like to tell you about. 

In the early sixties, not long after area colleges began taking students from other lands, an interesting program was started by members of the local Rotary Club.  At Thanksgiving, when most of the American students went home for the extended weekend, there would be a small, rather forlorn group of foreign young people left on the various campuses.  Here were the makings of a great service project.  Showing hospitality to these young folks who were so far from home could be combined with a chance for them to experience the lifestyle of  an ordinary American family.

Rotarians (with a good bit of assistance from their Rotary Anns) picked up on this opportunity and went to work. Lists of interested students were obtained from area colleges.  Then names of club members, and others willing to offer their homes, were compiled  and matches were made between the two.  A fine program in the high school gym was organized the evening of their arrival to acquaint the visitors with our rural community.  Then students and their host families were  introduced and things took off from there.

We participated in the event each year.  Once we had a wonderful young man from India  who came back and worked for us on the farm during spring break.  After graduating from college he was  employed by a local seed company for a time, and then went on to pursue a career in plant genetics and to become a U.S. citizen.  If memory serves me, that was partially motivated by his desire to avoid the arranged marriage that was awaiting him, had he returned to his homeland.  Another student was the son of the owner of one of Tokyo's major fisheries.  His dad had sent him to the States to become fluent in English so he could manage the American branch of the family business.  He had wanted to attend one of the major California schools. Instead, to the dismay of this urbane big-city lad, his father had chosen a small school, in a small town in the middle of the country.  On the west coast, the wise gentleman reasoned, there would be enough fellow Japanese-speakers that the boy  could get by learning very little Americanese.  At Buena Vista College (now University) no one else spoke his native tongue, so he was forced to learn English to survive !

There were others, but our very first foreign visitor was our favorite, and became a  life-long friend --  Margret Vetter was from Munich, Germany.  She had completed some college and was working for a travel agency at that time.  Margret's goal was  to become a skilled linguist. Having spent a year in Italy, she was now ready to perfect her English skills -- American style..  Through her experience at the travel agency, she learned that  student fares were lower than regular fares, so she had enrolled for some hours at Westmar College.  Through another contact,  Margret  managed a delightful living arrangement in the home of  a  pastor's family in Le Mars.  Next she found part-time employment in a local variety store. 

With her infectious laughter, she once told us of the reaction of customers her very first days on the job. As you probably know, the common word of  assent and agreement in German is "ja", which sounds just like the American "yeah".  So when people realized she was foreign-speaking they often complimented her on how quickly she was picking up on our ways, as she used "yeah" so fluently.

We continued to keep in touch with Margret, exchanging frequent letters.  When we  traveled to Germany some years later, we visited her in Munich.  As many of you know,  having a native guide when  visiting unfamiliar scenes can be a real advantage. That certainly proved to be the case for us.  Margret did refuse to escort us to the so-called tourist traps.  We had to make it to the well-known Hofbrauhaus on our own. She took us, instead. to the inns, shops and  out-of-the-way places, favored by  the people who lived there. 

Oh yes, she did teach one tourist caper to our teen-aged son who was with us --  the art of sneaking  beer glasses from the various establishments we visited.  He is still proud of his considerable collection.  Some years later when  we again saw Margret, who by then had married  Jurgen Krauss, a gifted young architect, I inquired about her glass collection.  With a cute, almost guilty, grin she confessed, "Jurgen won' t let me do that any more."

I could tell you much more of this long-lived  friendship, but I will stop for now with the story's bittersweet ending. A year ago our beloved Margret died of cancer  at age 62.  We joined  Jurgen, their sons Florian and Benjamin, and a myriad of friends, in mourning her death.  Though, through it all, we still celebrate a precious friendship that began so long ago with our town's very first Foreign Student Weekend.