Three German teens, along with a student from Spain and Thailand spent their senior year in Oakhurst, attending Yosemite High. Thanks to their host families and new friends they made along the way, these students were exposed to a small slice of Americana.
It’s Celina Cornelius’ first visit to the states. Coming from Munich, Germany, a densely populated city, living in Oakhurst has been quite an adjustment. With higher numbers of people comes a proven public transportation system, something foreign to small rural areas, and something Celina, 16, has missed all these many months. School life, however, gets an A-plus.
“I like Yosemite High, the teachers are more like friends because most of them are nice and take really good care of us,” Celina said. “It’s so different from my high school in Germany, and is a lot of fun. I especially like the school dances. We don’t have that back home. My English is getting better day to day, and I’ve matured since I’ve been here because it was the first time I really had to go through everything on my own, without my parents at my side.”
“Celina is very confident for being so young,” said Rusty Oetinger, her host parent. “Leaving her family and living in another country shows her comfort level at learning new experiences.”
The Oetingers not only had the opportunity to learn about a different culture, but daughters Claire (16) and Taylor (13) made a new friend from another country. The family also hosted a Chinese student a couple of years ago.
“For anyone interested in becoming a host family, it’s an invaluable learning experience for your kids, especially if the kids are close to the same age,” Rusty said. “It also teaches them that sometimes you need to help others out without compensation.”
After her exchange comes to an end, and prior to returning to Germany, Celina looks forward to traveling for a month to other parts of the U.S. with her father.
Germany’s Fabian Ernst is Teresa and Paul Struffert’s first foreign exchange student. Because he seemed like a good fit on paper, the couple decided to give being a host family a try.
“Having a person experience our country for the first time helped provide our family with a different perspective,” Teresa said. “It also made vacations more exciting because we were experiencing it like tourists.”
Language was initially quite a challenge, with many miscommunications at first. Laughing at the memory, Teresa said, “When Fabian first got here, he couldn’t understand Kobe because he mostly mumbles.”
The couple’s four children, Caleb (17), Kobe (14), Philip and Josephine (both 12), have adjusted much better than expected. Even though the only stipulation placed on Fabian was getting along with Caleb because they share a room, he has developed relationships with the entire family.
“Caleb and Fabian have the same circle of friends, and hang out with each other most of the time,” Teresa said. “He’s close to Philip, he and Kobe spend time listening to Dubstep music, and he and Josephine treat each other like brother and sister. She calls him annoying, he tells her to leave him alone, then five minutes later, they’re playing Minecraft together.”
Because it has been such a positive experience, Teresa said the family may take in another exchange student when her younger children are a little older.
“This school year has gone by way too fast,” she added. “It’s going to be very sad when Fabian goes home, decreasing our family to six when we’ve gotten used to being a family of seven ... but Fabian will forever be a part of our family unit.”
“Being a host family is the best,” Teresa continued. “These students have a bigger transition than we do as host families, so it’s important to be understanding. Give them time to acclimate, and take the opportunity to go on little vacations. It’s so rewarding watching your foreign exchange student try new stuff, see new things.”
Fabian, 17, isn’t too crazy about some of those new things, including American food, saying it often “tastes fake.”
The fact that he can legally drink at 16 in Germany, and at 18 can drive “really fast on the autobahns,” is disturbing to Teresa.
“That’s a crazy idea,” she commented. “Since I already have anxiety about my oldest driving 45 miles an hour, I can’t imagine him driving 90 miles an hour ... yikes.”
Becoming a host family began with liking a Facebook post for Denise Bryant. After discussing the possibility of taking in a foreign exchange student with her daughter Victoria (Tori) Rich, 18 and a YHS senior, Julia Knott of Germany moved into a bedroom left empty by Bryant’s 19-year-old daughter, Savannah.
“Julia fit right in. She comes from a small family, and like teens everywhere, loves the phone,” Bryant said. “It took her a good three months before she didn’t have to use her phone translator to figure out words.”
Because Julia likes to travel, it has made the family get out more, visiting San Francisco, Morro Bay and Santa Cruz. Savannah noticed and commented in jest that they never did anything like that when she still lived at home.
“It’s so neat listening to all Julia’s traditions, like when children first start kindergarten, gifts are given, which the students keep with them through out their school years,” Bryant added.
There are no school sports in Germany. Should a teen want to participate in an after-school sport, there’s a cost, so Julia - a straight A student - has jumped wholeheartedly into playing on YHS tennis, basketball and swim teams.
Because there are no jobs for teens back home, Bryant said that Julia has been a little jealous that Tori works, makes money, and can drive.
While she may take a break, Bryant said she would definitely host a student again because it’s so much fun learning about other cultures, makes for a connection that will last forever, and a tradition that will never be forgotten.
It turns out that, even though Julia turns 17 in May, she’s had multiple mini-birthday celebrations.
“Our tradition is that every time we go out and eat somewhere new, we always say it’s Julia’s birthday so they sing to her and embarrass her,” Bryant said, laughing. “One Riverpark restaurant gave her a huge sombrero for her birthday in December ... she’ll be taking that sombrero home with her.”
Lucia Campos Macus
While this is the first time David and Brooke Archer have opened their home to a foreign exchange student, they have shared their home as foster parents for several years, adopting three in 2008, and another in 2016.They then decided there was room for one more. Enter Lucia Campos Macus, 16, from Spain.
“Our girls love having Lucia in our home, although they’re a little jealous that she gets the big guest room and her own bathroom,” David said. “She’s in the same grade as Bri (daughter). They watch TV together, hang out, spend time with the same friends. Lucia has a crazy sense of humor and likes to do impersonations of a certain political figure. It’s funny to hear her in such a strong Spanish accent. Let’s just say that they’re the greatest impressions ever ... the best.”
Teachers are much more strict in Spain, and Lucia was initially a little taken aback at how YHS functions. However, after settling in, she said she likes how some of the teachers are approachable and how they really get to know their students. Because the only sport played in Spain is soccer, she especially loves being a part of the YHS swim and dive team.
“Part of our daily routine is after dinner we always hang out and talk about the day, politics, or current events,” David continued. “She fits right in and participates as part of the family. I think the biggest culture change was our meals because in Spain, she ate a lot of fish and vegetables. She says she doesn’t miss the fish ... and hamburgers are now her favorite. We eat a lot of mushrooms and asparagus, so I’m sure when she gets home she’ll say, ‘Every night, mushrooms.’”
Roy and Janelle Strong have never had children of their own, but were host parents in the past. When they heard there was a need, they decided to take in Suttirak (Ken) Chotmon from Thailand.
“He has helped fill a void since we have no children in our home,” Janelle said. “We’ve enjoyed taking him places like Yosemite National Park, on area hiking treks, and mall shopping in Fresno.”
Ken experienced Christmas for the first time, and enjoyed a day of ice skating at Tenaya Lodge with the Strongs’ niece. The couple has made sure that Ken will return home with a special little something from each American holiday that he can share with his family. They’re also planning on throwing him a big party next month for his 17th birthday. On the YHS honor roll, Ken likes Panda Express, but Taco Bell is his favorite go-to for eating out.
“The biggest difference between schools here and back home is that we have to wear uniforms, have lots of homework, and we can’t choose our own subjects,” Ken said.
Because his dad is a bank manager and his mom is a banker, Ken plans on going into banking, and should he return to the states one day, Janelle told him he better pop in for a visit.
“We have learned from Ken and he has learned from us, and while he’s made friends at school, he spends quite a bit of time at home,” Janelle continued. “If you’re thinking about becoming a host family, just do it. It’s truly a rewarding experience.”
Anyone interested in becoming a host family for foreign students waiting to attend school here can contact: Worldwide International Student Exchange (WISE), Cheryl Williams, (559) 908-5666, firstname.lastname@example.org; or International Cultural Exchange Services (ICES), Christy Prater, (559) 479-7449.