Alba Echeverria and Merle Hedinger came to Vinton from different European countries, hoping to leave with the same things other foreign exchange students treasure: Memories of a year spent in another country, friendships with American classmates and host families that can last a lifetime, and a variety of new experiences in culture, food and school.
Alba, from northern Spain, and Merle, from Hamburg, Germany, did indeed find all of that on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, plus one more thing they may not have thought to hope for: A new best friend from the other side of France.
Alba and Merle are back home now, where they say they live 1800 KM (1110 miles) apart. But before leaving Iowa, the two best friends who met when both lived approximately 4,000 miles away from their native countries had already begun to meet again soon, probably somewhere in France.
Although Alba doesn’t speak German and Merle doesn’t know Spanish, the two can converse in fluent English, as well as French.
They spent their last days together last month doing all the things high school best friends do. They watched VS baseball games, as Merle cheered for her host brother, Charlie Dudley. They toured Iowa and simply enjoyed time with friends, and each other. They filled their Facebook pages with photos of Prom and other events and memories from their year as Vinton-Shellsburg students.
When asked what her favorite memory of the past year with Merle is, Alba responded: “Everything.”
Merle used a few more words to describe how she will remember her year at VS.
“I can’t really say that I have a favorite memory because I feel like I’ll remember the small things I experienced here, like going to school was really fun or just hanging out with my host family and my friends, going to baseball games etc. I really appreciate that I had the possibility to experience this year and I am really thankful that my host family took such good care of me. I will probably miss everything about Iowa. It’s not just that I’ll miss all my friends that I got to meet in school; I feel like I will miss seeing everybody in class or even just in the hallway. I’ll miss going to classes here, I’ll miss having dinner with my family or hanging out at my house.”
Among the things Merle said she will miss the most: Nikki Dudley’s cooking.
“I really like American food but I’ll miss the food that my host mom cooked the most. She is a really good cook,” she says.
Merle’s brother, Noah, was also an exchange student this year a VS. A few years ago, their older brother, Lasse, also spent a year in Vinton with the exchange program.
Alba, Merle and Noah, made an impact on the Vinton-Shellsburg student body during the year they spent in Vinton. Noah was a member of the VS boys varsity soccer team and its third-leading scorer in a season that saw VS set several records for wins and goals.
The three also helped enrich the lives of their host families.
Alba spent the year with Terry and Debra Cline.
“Alba was our fourth exchange student,” says Debra. “We enjoy opening our home to the energy, culture and youth of these students. Alba was very involved in school, she joined Voyagers, speech, debate and had a part in the spring musical.”
Debra says Alba particularly enjoyed Prom – an American event that does not happen in European schools. She also enjoyed a common American comfort food she’d never had before: Mac and cheese.
“We enjoyed conversations about the differences and similarities of our government and cultures,” says Debra. “We enjoyed having her friends over and having a connection with the school. My husband and I are retired educators from Utah and have been in Vinton for two years so having a student in our home gave us an opportunity to meet new people.”
The Clines have had the privilege of visiting one of their former exchange students in Sweden and hope to do the same and visit Alba in Spain in a few years.
“The PAX program is an excellent one to work with and we would highly recommend it to others,” says Debra. “Alba is missed already by so many people and we consider her as part of our family. It was a year full of new insights, energy and a better understanding of yet another country we have come to appreciate.”
Nikki Dudley says being the host mother for Merle was really fun, but the decision to become a host parent was at first a difficult one.
“I was really nervous about making the decision to have a student,” she says. “I knew it could be a great experience, but I was worried if the student would fit in to our family, or if it would disrupt our family life – and with all boys (including two teenagers) I wasn’t sure how it would go to bring a teenage girl into the mix. Finally my husband convinced me that it would be fine and we went for it.”
Making the decision to become a host parent was the hardest part of the experience, says Nikki. When the Dudleys picked her up at the airport, young Jake’s first question was “Do you eat a lot of bratwurst???”
“For the first couple weeks, everything was kind of awkward as we all adjusted, but it got better every day,” Nikki recalls. “The kids started to enjoy helping her with her English and really joking around with her – a lot. It’s been really fun to learn about all the differences between her way of life in Germany vs. here and it was REALLY fun to watch her experience and participate in sports and activities through school. (Schools in Germany offer NO extracurricular activities.).
During her first week here, Merle she wanted to go buy a VS shirt.
“She thought it was so cool that all the kids had school pride and wore spirit wear,” Nikki says. Merle had told her that kids back home “wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a shirt with their school on it!”
Adding a teen girl to the dynamics of a family with three boys was really fun, says Nikki.
“Merle has become a friend to my boys and she will be dearly missed as a sister and a daughter. We are thankful for all the free technology that will make keeping in touch so easy. It’s been overall a great experience and I’m really glad we did it!”
As for advice for other area parents considering becoming host families, Nikki says: “My biggest piece of advice is to be really open with your communication. I always double and triple check to make sure everyone is clear because with not “knowing” each other and the language differences, it’s easy to misinterpret or misunderstand a message.”
Tyra Olson was Noah’s host mom; she had also hosted Lasse. Both Lasse and Noah were part of the Vinton-Shellsburg soccer team.
“I love how Noah and Lasse have become part of our family,” she says. “I loved watching them build friendships with teammates.”
Tyra offers a couple of pieces of advice she says worked for her family to make the exchange program work well.
“Something we did is try to pick an exchange student that had some of the same interests with our family so we could connect right off the bat. I would also say make sure you have clear boundaries and lines of what rules and responsibilities are for your household and talk about them right away or things can get a bit stressful.”