Students, families exchange cultures

Published 4:40 pm Friday, March 4, 2011

Foreign exchange student Sabrina Schultheiss with her host family Samantha Haase and Laura May.

Sabrina Schultheiss and Helen Li do as much studying in the hallways of Polk County High School as they do in the classroom.

The two are foreign exchange students through the AFS program, which aims to broaden students’ learning by exposing them to a new culture.

Schultheiss studies the culture of her classmates daily.

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“I have learned so much I don’t even know where to begin,” Schultheiss said. “The school’s teachers, they are very open to students asking questions and the students are very interested in why I came here.”

Polk County resident Henrik Krarup and his wife, Lone, serve as local liaisons for the AFS program.

The couple began as host parents to a Japanese student. The next year the Krarup’s own son traveled to Japan as an exchange student. Their youngest son just left for New Zealand to spend his own year as an exchange student.

“We’ve certainly looked at all the program offers that really is about making a safer world for everyone,” said Krarup “It’s this thing about where you meet total strangers from a different culture … It builds out your tolerance to other cultures. You start seeing that things can be different and that’s good.”

Lone Krarup said Polk County High School has been particularly cooperative in taking multiple AFS students in some years. They have also encouraged many of their own students to look into the program.

Schultheiss said throughout her middle school years she had heard much about America and the foreign exchange program. She had even met a fellow camp participant in Switzerland who had been an exchange student in Tennessee and who had a wonderful experience.

From that conversation she said she was convinced this was an experience she needed to have in her life.

“I’ve learned that the stereotype some people have about America is not true. They kind of give you a certain view on the TV and radio – I’ve experienced how welcoming people are here in North Carolina,” Schultheiss said.

Schultheiss’ host mother, Laura May, said she knows caring for a stranger’s child sounds like a big commitment, and it is, she said. But she also said she could never have expected the reward she and her own daughter have received in return.

“It is quite the commitment … it’s 11 months,” May said. “I’m like her second mom, but it’s a relationship I’ll have forever with her.”

May said both she and daughter, Samantha, have seen their world via a new perspective.

May said the family discusses the differences in food, education and transportation.

The way individuals eat was different for Schultheiss. She said meals seem more family focused in Switzerland.

“In Switzerland, going out to eat is very expensive, so we don’t do that very much,” Schultheiss said. “We have a strong culture of cooking together and sitting down to eat together. But in America it’s so cheap so everyone does it.”

May said she was amazed that Sabrina and her fellow students in Switzerland learn so many languages at a young age – Sabrina speaks Swiss-German, English, some French and a bit of Spanish.

In Switzerland students attend about 15 classes rotated throughout the week. She said they begin school at 7:20 and can go until even 6 p.m. depending on their schedule.

As for transportation, May said Sabrina appeared shocked by the size of vehicles, something May had not considered to be very unusual because it is commonplace in America.

May said she has delighted in watching Schultheiss experience America. She said it has made her pay attention to things we all take for granted as normal parts of life and our culture.

“[Hosting a foreign exchange student] is a complete education,” May said. “It opens your mind so much to the world outside Polk County. It’s so much more rewarding than you might realize.”

Two of Schultheiss’ favorite experiences during the first half of her stay here include attending high school football games and taking a trip to Colorado.

“I really enjoyed the Homecoming pep rally and game. That was kind of the point that I started getting to know people at the school,” she said. “Then going to Colorado was wonderful. It showed me a totally different side of America when it comes to landscape. I always thought the mountains here in North Carolina were like hills compared to Switzerland.”

Henrik Krarup said many of the students he and his wife have hosted continue to keep in touch. He said they often say that the year was “the best year of my life.”

He said he believes the experience builds character.

“I think that inspires a lot of young kids to be even a little better than they were when they came,” Krarup said. “Usually they take many things back such as the importance we all feel there is in the responsibility to serve their community.”

Krarup said for host parents the program is unique because there are no specific education or social requirements to participate. He said it doesn’t ask that you be of a particular faith, have a particular job or live a particular way.

Prospective host parents are screened and must undergo a background check.

The commitment, Krarup said, is to make a safe environment for these young people to live for a year. For the most part the young person pays fees and expenses related to trips and social activities.

Host parents do provide food for the students.

The Krarups said this is a great time of year to begin thinking about serving as host parents.

For more information, you can contact Lone and Henrik Krarup at 828-863-4020 or visit