Imagine being sixteen years old and having a world of possibilities in your hand. Possibilities than could change the course of your life. If you had to pick one country in which to live for a year, as a teenager, where would it be?
The answer was an easy one for Felipe Meza, in Rhinelander as a Rotary Youth Exchange student.
“My first option was America,” said Meza, whose hometown is Talca, Chile. When asked why he wanted to come here, again a simple, but enthusiastic response. “Because it’s America! I thought it would be like the movies, and it IS like the movies!”
Felipe is one of three foreign exchange students at Rhinelander High School. Through Rotary, he ranked his preferred countries from first to last. America may have been his first choice, but Rhinelander is a far cry from Los Angeles, Chicago or New York City…the cities he may have seen depicted in the movies and on TV.
“When I found out I was going to Rhinelander, I researched it and found the school online and thought, ‘oh the school is so cooool,’” he said. “I thought in school the popular kids, the football players, would be mean to the nerds; but it isn’t – everyone is equal so I like that.”
Christoffer Kjeve, from Rakkestad, Norway also took to the internet to look into his new home.
“I thought, well, it’s a pretty big town with a population of 8,000,” Kjeve said. “I thought it looked nice.”
The United States is where Christoffer wanted to be. Through American Field Service, better known as AFS, he submitted an application and waited to be selected. While none of the students admit to having any expectations of their life abroad, Kjeve said he happened into one very unexpected situation early on in his exchange.
“I went to the library in town and one of the women who worked there (Nila Sjoberg) asked me where I was from, and I said Norway,” He recalled. “And then she started speaking Swedish to me, because she is from Sweden. That was unexpected. And pretty cool.”
Rhinelander, the name alone, was not cause for celebration for Germany native, Maike Saggau.
“I was actually a little disappointed when I heard the city I would be going to was Rhinelander because we have in Germany an area called Rhineland,” Maike said. “And I thought oh, well, everyone is going to speak German.”
But of course, no one does.
“No,” she replied. “I think it’s really nice.”
Hailing from far Northern Germany, in Schleswig-Holstein, Maike was sent to the United States by World Heritage exchange program. Maike said she was hoping to get to Canada, but it was cost prohibitive.
“I am still in the northland,” she said. “And I like that it has a lot of trees, which is what I was looking for.”
All three students say the best part of school is participating in school sports. Outside of the U.S., it is rare for schools to offer extra-curricular activities.
“They take their sports very seriously here,” Maike remarked. “I don’t know about other countries, but in Germany we have no school sports, and sometime it seems like school here is centered around sports.” She participated in tennis, hockey, and is now playing soccer.
Kjeve has excelled as a Hodag athlete, earning the soccer team MVP and setting a scoring record, with 25 goals, in the Great Northern Conference. He was also the punter on the football team, participated in Nordic skiing and is currently tearing it up as a member of the track team. Felipe played soccer, and is on the tennis team this spring.
With only a few months remaining in their lives as American teens, who among them is looking forward to going home?
“Ohhhh, not me,” was, you guessed it—Felipe’s response. Christoffer also admitted it will be difficult to leave the friends he has made the past year.
“All of my friends have decided they are going to Germany to visit my family,” said Maike, “So I don’t think I will miss them much because I know I will see them again. I am happy to go back home to see my friends, though.”
“I love Rhinelander,” Felipe said wistfully.
Christoffer agreed, “I think we all do.”
It appears that at Rhinelander High School, the feeling is mutual.