Exchange students at home on the Iron Range

Five foreign exchange students are attending Eveleth-Gilbert Senior High this year. From left: Jemmy Jirawitchaya, Thailand; Maria Escobar, Colombia; Suyeon Jo, South Korea; Laia Tudela and Carla Seoane, Spain. The teens are enjoying Minnesotan traditions, especially, says Carla, tater tot hotdish.

EVELETH — Carla Seoane giggles as she talks of the best experiences so far during the high schooler’s time at her treasured, temporary home.

“Walking on water” and “skating outside,” she says, all smiles. Those are not things that can be done where she comes from.

The 17-year-old was simply in awe when introduced to a frozen lake. “The first couple steps on it, I was like, ‘This is crazy!’”

The 11th grader relays that when her father, in her home of Galicia — a costal community in northwestern Spain — learned his daughter was going to northern Minnesota, his response was: “Are you sure you want to go there?”

Carla is joined on a recent day in the Commons at Eveleth-Gilbert Senior High by a group of sophomores and juniors. The 16- and 17-year-olds can each relate to Carla’s reaction toward the craziness of an Iron Range winter.

All five foreign exchange students attending E-G this year come from places where the idea of a frozen lake is a mind-boggling concept.

Carla’s eyes, however, light up the brightest when she speaks of her most beloved piece of Minnesota culture — “tater tot hotdish!”

The others giggle at their fellow exchange student’s great enthusiasm for the dish, featuring the deep-fried potatoes, that in most parts of the country would be called a casserole.

“Casserole!” Carla laughs.

The teenage girls continue their contagious laughter as they share bits and pieces of their American stories.

Gathered are Laia Tudela, a 10th grader from a small town in the Catalonia region of northwest Spain, about 40 miles from Barcelona; and Jemmy Jirawitchaya, a 10th grader from Bangkok, Thailand — both living with host mom Linda Currie, of Gilbert.

There’s also Maria Escobar, an 11th grader from Cúcuta, Colombia; and Suyeon Jo, a sophomore from the Hadong area of South Korea — living with host family Gina Colangelo-Koski and her husband Jack Koski.

The teens come from different parts of the world, but all agree that being an exchange student has been among the best experiences of their young lives.

Their host parents feel similarly.

“It’s amazing to see the world through their eyes,” Colangelo-Koski said. It’s almost, she said, like the first time her own two grown children experienced things for first time. Her “bonus daughters” were thrilled to make handprints and footprints in the snow. And they were “so in awe” of driving through a car wash.

Currie agreed.

“It’s rewarding” — a journey of rediscovery, she said. When Jemmy one day suddenly stopped short while walking in the parking lot of a local store, Currie had no idea what was happening. Then she realized: Jemmy was stunned by the bright pinks and purples of the sky at sunset.

That made Currie pause, too.

Her exchange students were, perhaps though, most delighted by the unexpected sounds and feeling of walking across crunching snow.

The snow. And the cold. Those were big ones for all the students.

While Maria and Suyeon arrived later in the school year, they made it in time for the bitter subzero temperatures of this past winter.

“I like cold weather,” Maria said.

Parts of Spain get chilly in the winter, Laia said, but nothing like Minnesota.

Carla said when she looked up the average winter temperatures in the northern part of the state before coming to Minnesota, “I was so exited. I like the cold.”

Jemmy was not so sure. “It’s about 90 degrees year-round” in Bangkok, she said. “I thought, ‘Can I survive this cold?’’

But they all did — many with borrowed jackets and snow boots. And they all spent a fair amount of time out in the snow, making snow angels and snowmen.

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School, itself, was an adjustment for the students, especially the idea of school-sponsored extracurriculars.

“In Spain, sports are played as a club,” Carla said.

It’s similar in Thailand, Jemmy said. Students participate in club sports, club choir, cooking club.

All five teens have been involved in athletics at E-G.

Carla was on the swim team; she and Laia joined golf; Jenny and Laia played basketball, and Jemmy, Maria and Suyeon are in track.

Laia had a wonderful moment in basketball, she said. She made a basket — even if it was for the wrong team.

Jemmy also lettered in knowledge bowl. She wanted a letterman’s jacket, said her host mom. She and Currie settled on attaching the badge to a lighter jacket, more suited to her native home.

In Thailand, Jemmy attends a boarding school, several hours from her family’s home. She’s been “on her own” for a number of years, Currie noted.

In South Korea, Suyeon said, high schoolers attend school year-round, and the school days are long — lasting from morning until “10 or 11 at night.”

The other students gasp at that one.

Carla said she’s found school in Minnesota to feel “more like a family” than back home. “Everybody knows everybody. The people are more open.”

Laia agreed. Students in America seem “more accepting” than in Spain, she says.

And people here are much more polite with words, Carla said. “People say ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘please.’” It’s not like that in Spain, she said.

Nor is it in Colombia, Maria added.

Greetings also vary greatly.

In Spain people give each other a kiss on each cheek, said Carla and Laia. In Colombia, a “hello” is often a quick “cheek-to-cheek” kiss, Maria said.

In South Korea, people bow, Suyeon said. And in Thailand, the standard greeting is a bow with palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion, says Jemmy, demonstrating the gesture.

Also new to the exchange students: America’s minimum driving age of 16. In their countries, a person must be 18 to drive a motor vehicle. “Here you have much more freedom — you can depend on yourself,” Carla said of licensed teenage drivers.

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To be accepted into the International Student Exchange program, students must have good grades and pass English. In Spain, students learn British English, said Carla and Laia.

Thus, Carla said, some words are different in the Untied States. Like, well, “tater tot,” she quips.

While the students have enjoyed many things at E-G, such as going to the homecoming dance and prom, food is one of the biggest topics of discussion.

“Here, you use a lot more fat from animals,” Carla said. “We have a lot of oils.”

“I miss spicy food,” Jemmy said. She and her host family ate at a Thai restaurant in Minneapolis, and — while it was good, she said — the food wasn’t quite the same as in Thailand.

She has, however, been enjoying American chicken strips. And s’mores. Both she and Laia haven’t been able to get enough of those treats, Currie said.

“Here the food is more immediate — more fast food,” Maria noted.

“The pizza is really good here,” Laia said.

Carla noted that at home her family eats lots of seafood — and “octopus.” She misses that.

But then, Minnesota has — you guessed it — “tater tots!”

Colangelo-Koski said she gives exchange students much credit. It takes courage, she said, to hop on a plane, leave your family behind and take up residence with unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar place.

Exchange families also have a “financial sacrifice,” Currie said. Host families are only responsible to house the students and provide them with three meals per day. The students pay for any travel expenses, she said.

Being a host parent means truly being a parent to those kids, the two host moms agreed.

During her stay, Jemmy’s grandpa died. “She’s 24 hours (by plane) from home and we are sitting in Gilbert, Minnesota,” Currie said, recalling how it was left to her to comfort the teen.

Being a host family is so worthwhile, the moms added.

“I’m used to a crazy-busy household,” Colangelo-Koski said. That “crazy-busy wonderful chaos” has been missing for the empty-nester couple. That’s part of the reason she and Koski became host parents, she said.

The same is true for Currie. After her youngest of three children, Briona, left to attend a performing arts school in New York City, her home became much more quiet.

“There was always a revolving door” of kids coming and going. Currie missed that. “I have to have life and laughter.”

The moms have plenty of liveliness and laughter now, they laughed.

The host families have provided the students with many Iron Range experiences, and some in other parts of the state and country.

All five students have toured the Twin Cities; all have been to the Mall of America.

“We went to Paisley Park — Prince’s home,” Carla smiled. Her host family also took her to Disneyland in California. “When I was told we were going I was crying,” she said. The park “looked like in the movies.”

Laia and Jemmy will also be traveling with Currie to New York to visit their host mom’s youngest daughter.

It will be difficult when their “bonus” daughters head home, said the moms.

And the students will miss their host families.

Tears flow as Carla thinks about leaving the United States. “This is the first time I feel like I’m at home,” she said. “It’s like this is my place to be.”

She will miss the people — her many new friends, her home away from home, she said.

And, of course, “the tater tot hot dish.”

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