by Rick Langenberg:
Woodland Park and Teller County can’t compete with New York City as an international student mecca, but the high country area is making quite an impressive showing in attracting high school kids from around the globe.
This week marks the 15th annual International Education Week, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and featuring a slew of events planned in Washington D.C and throughout the country
And largely due to the work of WP Councilman Gary Brovetto, the head local coordinator for the Education First High School Exchange effort, the Woodland Park RE-2 School District has joined the cultural celebration in a big way.
The international exchange program at the RE-2 School District this year features seven students and host families, representing such countries as Spain, Germany Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Norway and Kazakhstan. These students and a few host families were recognized last week during a media ceremony inside the high school lobby, donned with flags from various parts of the world. The teens stay with their host families in Teller County for close to a year. “It is a very rewarding and beneficial program,” said Brovetto, who has hosted eight students during the last four years. He notes these ties have allowed him to make many life-long international relationships with the students and their parents. As the international exchange coordinator, he spends hours reviewing applications and bids from appropriate families. “It is a lot of work, but it is important to have the right match,” said Brovetto, who estimates he reviews probably 2,600 applications a year and visits scores of local families.
Another key veteran local host family who needs few introductions in the community is that of Mark and Jennifer Manriquez. Mark Manriquez, an investigator with the Division of Gaming, is the head football coach of the Woodland Park Middle School and just completed an unsuccessful but enthusiastic bid for sheriff of Teller County. “It has changed our life and outlook,” said Manriquez, in describing their experience in the last few years as a host family in welcoming students from Spain.
The international exchange family hosts cite the experience as invaluable and a way for them to connect with cultures they have had previous ties with or want to know more about. “They (the international students) become part of our family,” said Brovetto, in describing the basic concept of the program. Moreover, he sees the program as an ideal way to put Woodland Park and Teller County on the international map.
In turn, the new group of international students says they are relishing the exchange. The visiting international students say they mostly enjoy the friendly, small-town mountain atmosphere, the scenery, the class flexibility and comradery, but admit they aren’t crazy about the cold mountain weather. And at times, they long for a big city and a transit bus. For most exchange students, they also are getting a chance to experience activities they always wanted to try, but never got the chance to explore in their native lands.
For sports buff Patxi Colet-Juiz of Spain, he got the opportunity to fulfill a long-time dream of playing American football. And with Mark Manriquez’ ties with Southern California, the two developed a close kinship with UCLA athletics and respective sports role models. And not surprisingly, Patxi got a first-hand dose of American politics, with Mark’s front-row status as a top contender in the sheriff’s race.
The Manriquez family plans to give Patxi a chance to see other popular American sports, such as professional baseball, with a trip slated early next year in Arizona for the Cactus League spring training, where the top National League teams prepare for the 2015 season. For Asem of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, she loves cross-country running, serving as a manager for the girls’ basketball team and taking different classes she really likes.
Asem, who exhibits a witty sense of humor, spends plenty of hours doing presentations on her native country. “We are not some backwards, third-world country without water, electricity or the Internet,” quipped Asem in describing her country located between China and Russia and the perceptions she deals with from fellow students.
For Rita Sasaki of Japan, she loves getting away from the big city and frantic bustle of Tokyo and escaping a Spartan-like academic atmosphere with students studying until midnight. She, like most international exchange students, speaks highly of a more social atmosphere in the RE-2 District and a more flexible class schedule than her home country.
Songhyoen Park of South Korea was shocked at the sight of so many dogs in an area that has a love affair with their canines. She wants to take a trek to the top of Pikes Peak once the weather improves.
Songhyoen also enjoys high country cooking and a more tranquil environment, void of missile launchings from North Korea. “We see missiles going off all the time, but it’s no big deal,” joked the South Korean student, who has mingled quite well with a friendly Woodland Park family with three other girls.
Meanwhile, Simon Aagren of Sweden can’t get over how strangers interact in a store or public place in Teller County, a no-no in his Swedish homeland. “We don’t really talk to strangers much,” admitted Simon. “I am very impressed with how friendly everybody is here.”
Both he and fellow European students David Rutzen and Torje Rolfsen enjoy their Woodland Park experience, but admit the area is lacking in one area that Europe is way ahead of our locale by leaps and bounds: public transportation. “I can’t believe how people rely on their cars here,” commented David and Torje, who admit they have plenty of experience in getting around back home through public buses.
These are just a few glimpses of the initial experiences of this year’s international exchange class. In some ways, the students have gained a status as mini-celebrities in the RE-2 District. “This program will get better every year,” concluded Brovetto. “We learn a lot about different cultures and they learn a lot about us.”