European culture experienced daily
Diversity is nothing new to the Gill family. Eugenia, a special education aide at West Orange-Stark Middle School, was born and raised in Germany. She moved to the United States in 1993 with her son Eugene, who is now a senior at WOS High School.
Eugenia and Gary, her husband, have hosted two previous exchange students, Andre and Clemmons.
“My mom [hosted an exchange student] while I was growing up and I’ve always wanted to do it.”
Gary explained that the program offers the host families a lot of information on each child and their families. “We looked for one with similar interest as Eugene. We looked for tennis, guitar and church.”
“You go on a web site and they’ll show you what ethnic groups you want,” said Eugenia. “From there it goes age group, male or female and then you put in what interests you like, and then it will show the students that have the same interest.”
And that’s how they found Ruben Gremmelt. He fit the Gills perfectly. Ruben is from a village in Germany called Schalby.
“I think when I was in the fourth grade, my cousin wanted to do it and I heard about it,” said Ruben. “I wanted it too. He didn’t do it, he cancelled it at the last minute but I still wanted to. It’s not hard [to join the program] if you’re good at school. I was lucky. I wrote applications to, maybe, 20 different organizations, I was lucky because the first one took me.”
His parents weren’t too thrilled with the idea of Ruben coming to the States. “At first they said ‘NO!’ But then I talked to my uncle and he talked with my parents,” he said. “Then they said ‘alright, if you take care of it, then you can do it.’”
He did. He applied, he was accepted and had to travel to Berlin, Germany to get his Visa, which was a five hour drive. He had to fill out about 50 pages of paper work (and the host family only received three or four pages). “It was a lot of work…hours and days of work,” he said.
Foreign students who enroll in the exchange student program only get to pick which country they’d like to go to. The rest is left up to the host families.
“I don’t have any influence where I go but I can deny one family,” he said.
He denied one family because he would have to go to a private school.
“I didn’t want to go to a private school because it would have [been expensive],” Ruben said. “My family paid for this trip. You can get scholarships, but I didn’t get any.”
“We spent three days in New York [City] just for preparation and to see the city,” Ruben said. “We had to do some courses.” From NYC, he flew to Houston and then to Beaumont by himself.
“When I got here, I was surprised how green it was and how flat it is,” Ruben said.
The temperature adjustment was challenging for Ruben. The highest the temperature gets in Germany is in the 80’s. Right now, Ruben said it’s probably in the in 20’s to 30’s.
“It was hard at first. The first week as hot,” he said. “Playing tennis in that heat…after the first two weeks, I liked it.”
While the time difference is seven hours (Germany is seven hours ahead of us here in Southeast Texas), it hasn’t bothered Ruben much.
“I didn’t have any problems adjusting,” said Ruben. “I had to learn some things. The beginning was kind of difficult to understand people talking. Everybody spoke so fast. We’re not used to it. When we learn it in school, everyone speaks slow and it’s Oxford English.”
All exchange students are required to pass all of their classes. Ruben had a bit of a shock when he first started at WOS High School because he was learning and doing all of his homework in a language different from what he was used to.
“I was failing two classes, but one was a mistake. I decided to get out of those [AP classes]. It would be pretty bad if you have to go home after six weeks.”
A local coordinator continuously checks in with the exchange student and the host families just to make sure everything is working out. They will also check the grades and progress of the student.
“For me, [school] is easier but if you are in the AP classes, it’s a lot harder,” Ruben said. [Back home], it was hard for me. Here it’s easy.”
Physics is his favorite class “because it’s so easy. I also liked physics in Germany for the first two years [of school]. Now it’s more math than physics. I like it because it’s logical and I’m good at it. We built a bridge out of popsicle sticks.”
Ruben has not had a hard time making friends. He said that everyone here in the states is so friendly, plus it helps that Eugene is a senior at WOS High School and knows just about everyone.
“Everybody asks ‘you’re new?’ Or if someone knows that I am from Germany, they’ll ask me to say something in German,” Ruben said. “I don’t [remember] every name, but I know who they are and how I met them.”
Ruben plays on the tennis team for the Mustangs and is hoping to play on the golf team. “I’ve never played, I just want to see how it is.”
“I really like it here, of course, I also like Germany,” Ruben said. “There are some things that are the same. Cars are different, the roads are different, and the schools are different. Everything is different. “It really was and really is like everyone says it is. Cliche.
Everyone drives huge cars, just everything. Everyone in Texas owns a horse, his own boots and a gun.”
Life here hasn’t been to different for Ruben. “In Germany, I didn’t have a curfew, but I couldn’t do other things,” he said. “I think [the family structure] is about the same. My family always expects me to eat with them. It got on my nerves. I like just going in [the kitchen] and getting something.”
The economy is suffering in Germany just as it is here. Gasoline there is $7 a gallon. “That’s what we don’t drive those huge cars,” Ruben said.
He also said that most people in Germany lives in an apartment unless they live in a village (just as Ruben and his family do). The houses in the villages are always two story and people do not own large pieces of land.
Back home, he likes to go sailing, mountain biking, skiing, water skiing and has traveled to most of the European countries except the eastern countries. Austria has been one of his favorite places to visit because he likes to go skiing.
Here Eugene and Ruben go to Community Christian Church, the Drive Center on Wednesday nights and the Refuge on Monday’s. The Gills and Ruben also enjoy shopping and going to movies.
He looks forward to seeing his family but he’s also interested in getting back into the grove of things when he goes home.
“I can’t really work on my life from here,” Ruben said. “It doesn’t matter what my grades are here. It doesn’t change anything in Germany. I want to have an influence on that, like what I will do later so I can study and graduate. When I go back, it will be hard, but I’m still looking forward.”
Some exchange students stay six months and some stay a full year. The student staying a full year may be required to repeat the year they spent in the exchange student program. If they’re grades are good enough, they don’t have to.
“I want to [repeat this year],” said Ruben. “I really don’t want that stress. I know I won’t make it if I don’t repeat it.”
After finishing school, he wants to join the military and serve for 13 years. “I just want to see what it’s like,” he said.
He then wants to become an anesthesiologist.
“My father is one,” Ruben explained. “I think it’s good if you’ve already got a name. He’s got contacts to all of those guys. I’ve got everything planned.”
Even though Ruben still has a few more months here in Orange, the Gills aren’t looking forward to saying goodbye.
“You get attached to [the exchange students],” Gary said. “You wake up the next day and ‘wow, they’re not here.’” The Gills always stay in contact with their exchange students whether by phone or Skype.
“It’s feels like a brother is in the house,” Eugene said. “Growing up as an only child is boring.”
Ruben’s father will come in July to pick him up and they’ll have three weeks to vacation and see the States.
“We’ll rent a car and go wherever we want,” Ruben said. “I want to go to Las Vegas. He wants to go to Albuquerque. There are many places [we want to see].”
For more information on how to host an exchange student, please visit http://www.ayusa.org/ or http://www.asse.com/.