An authentic American experience for Valhalla’s exchange students
Iris Kempenaars from Roosendaal, the Netherlands, and Lena Ruppelt from Braunschweig, Germany, were reluctant to think about their June departure date from the small town, high school and host families they’ve come to love.
But they were more than eager to talk about the year they have spent in the United States, what it’s been like adapting to American culture and high school, and their new-found love of bagels and New York-style pizza.
The girls, both seniors, came to the United States through two different organizations. Iris applied through Youth for Understanding (YFU), an international educational exchange organization. Lena came to Valhalla through the Mt. Pleasant Rotary Club and the Valhalla International Fund, a VHS organization that has served more than 200 incoming and outgoing exchange students since 1960.
“I picked the United States because I like America and have always wanted to go to another country to have a new experience,” Iris said.
Iris: Finding a Home at Last
While Lena settled right in with her Valhalla host family in August, Iris had an initial bumpy ride. She was first placed with a family in Long Island in August, then two months later was subsequently replaced with another family in Sloatsburg, N.Y., after the Long Island family experienced some personal problems. The new family was also beset with problems shortly after Iris settled in, and she had to be placed yet again after establishing friendships at Suffern High School.
The YFU was in the midst of searching for a third host family for Iris, when she met Lena at a holiday party hosted by the VIF. After Lena learned about Iris’s difficulties, she shared the story with her host mother, Joan Tippett, whose daughter Ally was a VIF exchange student in Spain last summer.
Mrs. Tippett contacted a Valhalla friend, Barbara Cazemier, and Iris at last found herself with a new host family, this one for keeps, in early January, and with a new friend in Lena.
Iris Kempenaars from the Netherlands, left, and Lena Ruppelt from Germany, are Valhalla High School's two exchange students this year.
“When I first came here, I was shy and didn’t talk that much, but now I have so many friends and have so much fun,” she said. “School sports is my favorite thing. That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to be in an American high school.”
Both girls were surprised to find that they needed a ride every- where around Valhalla and Westchester County and to the train station for excursions into the city. Most people bicycle, walk or take the bus in their hometowns, so they felt a little shut in for a while.
Iris in particular enjoys the city and its bright lights, especially when she’s in Times Square at night. She likes going to Broadway shows and has so far seen "Rent" and "A Christmas Spectacular" at Radio City Music Hall. “I’m a night person,” she said. “When the lights come on, people come alive.”
Exchange students are required to change families during the second half of their year- long stay and Lena is now being hosted by the Whitman family. Host mother Lori, as it turns out, is the sister of Mrs. Cazemier, Iris’s host mother, a relationship that has deepened the girls’ own connection.
Lena: “The Best Year of My Life”
“When I came here, I was thinking that this was going to be the best year of my life and I can say that it’s been amazing,” said Lena. “I just love to live here. It’s so different. Every day I learn something new and it’s just fun. The winter formal dance we had in January was such a good experience. We don’t have anything like that back in Germany.”
For Lena, who loves sports, being able to participate on school teams has been a big surprise. German schools do not have school teams, she said. In the fall, she was a member of the volleyball team, and this winter she joined the basketball team. In the spring, she’ll play softball.
Simple things please Lena the most, like the twinkling lights from the houses she can see in the surrounding hills at night. “I think it’s so pretty at night,” she said. “My city is very flat in comparison.”
Teens are Teens the World Over
Like their Valhalla teenage counterparts, both Iris and Lena wear jeans, leggings and Ugg boots and enjoy shopping at the Palisades Mall and watching “Grey’s Anatomy” when they’re not studying. They’ve both been studying English since they were in the third grade and speak fluently, but say they have a little difficulty with some tougher vocabulary words in their American history and government classes. Not so in math, in which they excel. They are both enrolled in college-level algebra.
High school in America is similar in some ways to high school in Europe and very different in others, the girls said. For example, in Germany, students stay in one class- room and teachers for each subject come to them, not the other way around. Lockers are much smaller and open with a key, not a combination lock, and clubs, sports and other activities are always outside of school on students’ own time. The American sense of humor is a little different, too, and Iris said that some of her jokes get a blank stare in return. But both girls love it when their friends try to mimic their accents. “They can’t do it!” Lena said.
With a few months remaining before they return home, Iris and Lena are making the most of their time, enjoying their new friends and the experience of being an exchange student, which includes eating as much as they can of their two favorite American treats: bagels and pizza. “The pizza is the best!” Lena said.
A Look Ahead
In February, Iris traveled with other YFU exchange students on a week-long trip to Hawaii. Lena traveled to Bermuda in October with the Rotary Club, and journeyed to Washington, D.C., in April.
When Iris returns to the Netherlands, she’ll begin making plans to study business and marketing at a college 20 minutes from home, while Lena will complete her final year at her hometown high school (German students complete five years of high school). She plans to study international business and to travel as often as she can.