Exchange students leave with warm memories
By Clay Schuldt
Special to The Caledonia Argus
Caledonia High School has been out for summer since early June and while many of the graduating seniors will not leave Caledonia for college until the fall, a few unique students have already left the area.
Exchange students Ja’n Baliak and Bao-Thy Huynh have both returned home to their respective countries of Slovakia and Norway over the last month. Both students lived in Caledonia during the 2011-12 school year.
Before leaving Baliak talked about some of his experiences in America, while Huynh gave an interview over Skype from Norway.
A third student, David Guth of the Czech Republic, was unavailable for comment but also enjoyed the school year in Caledonia.
It takes a special type of student to travel halfway around the world, alone, to attend school in a foreign country. Both Baliak and Huynh were able to meet the challenges thanks to previous exposure to the U.S. through family. For Baliak, his brother Patrick was a huge inspiration. “He was here two years ago,” he said.
From his brother, Baliak had some understanding of America; however, he did not learn where he would be staying until the last minute.
Baliak found out he would be coming to the Midwest just two days before leaving Slovakia. The agency simply told him he was flying to La Crosse, and he naturally assumed he would be staying in Wisconsin. The flight from Slovakia to La Crosse is over 20 hours with a layover in London and Chicago.
Upon arrival Baliak learned that Caledonia would be his home for the next several months. Baliak’s knowledge of Minnesota before moving to Caledonia was limited. He laughed about the situation and said, “I knew it was in the north.”
Huynh enrolled in the exchange program for a simple reason: “I like America.” At age 11 she and her parents visited the U.S., and the country left a significant impression. However, on Huynh’s first visit, she spent time in New York City. Caledonia was significantly smaller than she expected.
“I didn’t know how small it was until I googled it,” Huynh said.
Huynh’s hometown of Kongsvinger, Norway has a population of 17,000, which by Norway standards is considered small. If Huynh thought Caledonia was tiny, she was in for quite a shock when she moved in with the Gade family, who lives outside of Eitzen.
A key to transferring to an American school is learning the language. Prior to taking part in the exchange program, all applicants are required to speak English and must pass a test. “They want three years of English,” Baliak said, “but I only had one year of English, and I passed the test. It was easy.”
Huynh did not have any trouble picking up the English language, and said by the time she left the U.S. she only had a hint of a Norwegian accent. Huynh has been multilingual most her life and speaks Norwegian, Vietnamese, English and a little French.
Without the language barrier holding them back, the exchange students had little trouble meeting the academic requirements of the Caledonia School District.
“It’s easy here because it’s seven classes at a time every day.”
Baliak said in Slovakia students take 14 classes at a time alternating the subjects every other day.
Huynh agreed that the Caledonia district’s structure was much simpler than her home country’s system. In Norway students attend classes for a longer time. Although, according to Huynh, the average American text book tends to be a lot larger and heavier than Norwegian text books.
Of course learning about a different culture does not end at school. Both students said they were surprised to find that products sold in America were much cheaper than in Europe. Even during a recession, American-made products such as food, clothing, gasoline and DVDs all sell for less than overseas.
Baliak was shocked to see all low-price alternatives on food, citing America’s abundance of fast food restaurants. Huynh was excited about the low cost of clothing, in fact she left the United States with an extra suitcase full of American-bought clothing.
When asked what they would miss most about the Caledonia area, both students said without hesitation “the people,” specifically their host families.
Baliak spent the school year in Caledonia with Jeff and Tammy Meyer and invited his host parents to stay with him in Slovakia.
Besides his host family, Baliak joked, “I’ll miss the big trucks,” as large trucks are rare in Slovakia.
Huynh returned to Norway shortly after graduation and remains in contact with her host family through Skype. The Gade family left her a standing invitation to stay with them when she returns. “Her room is always open,” said Jeanne Gade.
Both students wished their host families and friends in the U.S. a great summer and thanked everyone for all their unforgettable experiences over the last year.