Archive for Tuesday, December 26, 2006

World meets Western Kansas

Coldwater high school immersed in foreign exchange program

December 26, 2006


— Natalia Villaroel Pariagua was stunned.

She's from Santa Cruz, Bolivia. There are 1.4 million people there.

Now she was waking up for the first time in Comanche County. The entire county might have 1,900 people.

She looked outside that first morning and didn't see a single person. "I saw a horse and cow from my window," she recalls. "I thought, 'Oh, my God. Where am I?' I never in my life thought I would live with horses and cows and farmers."

That kind of culture shock is getting common in Coldwater, a town of 760 in southwestern Kansas.

Residents in the school district there are making a habit of recruiting a disproportionately high percentage of foreign exchange students compared with most districts. This year, eight of the 81 students at South Central High School are from other countries.

It's a move that adds diversity to one of the whitest counties in Kansas, and boosts school enrollment - and therefore funding - in an area that is seeing a steady decline in population.

"I think it helps the school financially, and it adds a little diversity," says Chris Bruckner, a mechanic and one of the host parents. "It's a very close town, but it's also a prejudiced town. Most people benefit from having exchange students here."

'Positive experience'

The foreign exchange tradition started about six years ago, around the same time the high schools in Coldwater and nearby Protection (population 530) consolidated. Now, the school district encompasses all of Comanche County and parts of two other counties.

One foreign exchange student hosted by a local couple quickly turned into about 10 students in subsequent years. The students started going to the Lions Club and talking about their home countries. People in town loved it.

"I think it's been a positive experience both for the American students, bringing in culture from another country, and for the community, which has welcomed them with open arms," says Mike Baldwin, who serves as principal of the high school and district superintendent.

Baldwin limits international enrollment to 10, five each from the two exchange programs that provide students to the area. It does take extra staff time to teach students who are less proficient in English, he says.

Jeanette O'Hair, who has taught home economics courses at the school for 35 years, admits it does take a little extra work to teach the exchange students, and "some of us don't have patience."

But she likes what the international students add both to the school and the town. In her classes, students share their favorite recipes from the homelands.

"I always tell (American students): 'Diversity - you get it from the exchange students,'" O'Hair says. "Otherwise, they don't have a clue."

Cindy Reimer, a junior and lifelong Coldwater resident, says nobody at the school thinks twice about having the exchange students. And she says her town can learn from the diversity.

"I've never had it without them," Reimer says. "I've learned a lot about the countries. It gives a different perspective. Like the Lions Club - it's a bunch of old men, and they have the exchange students make presentations."

Curious classmates

The cultural exchange works both ways.

Irem Balaban is sitting in a school cafeteria with big, construction paper letters that spell out "Merry Christmas."

She knew Christmas would be everywhere when she came to the United States. She's seen American TV shows and movies.

But she's from Istanbul, Turkey, and, like most Turks, she's Muslim. The Christmas season has taken some getting used to.

She's learning about American customs. And many of her classmates are curious about her faith.

"Before me, they probably thought all Muslim people are terrorists," Balaban says. "They don't realize that's not our religion."

At 15 and a sophomore, Balaban is the youngest of this year's exchange students. The rest are juniors and seniors. In addition to her, there are two students from Japan, three from Germany and one each from China and Bolivia.

Balaban is learning to play basketball, does jigsaw puzzles with her host family and cares for the cow and nine chickens in the backyard.

"I didn't like it at first," Balaban says. "Istanbul is big, but it's crowded and always noisy. They never stop - the horns are always going all day. Istanbul makes people tired."

She's used to the quiet in Coldwater.

"I can live here for a while, for now," Balaban says. "But after a while I'm going to need Istanbul again."

Sparsely populated

Like all the exchange students, Oi Hao came to the United States to learn American customs and improve his English.

He chose an American name - Allen, after the NBA's Allen Iverson.

"Basketball's like my life," he says. He's on the high school team.

When Hao was picked up from the airport, it was his first time in a car that wasn't a taxi. He couldn't stop staring at the stars - he'd never seen such a bright sky before.

"They usually fly into Dodge City, or we pick them up in Wichita," says Debi Sherman, a coordinator for the exchange program. "We drive and drive to get here. They think we're taking them to the edge of the earth."

Comanche County is one of the most sparsely populated counties in Kansas. There are about 2.5 people per square mile.

There's not much in Coldwater business-wise, aside from a Main Street that has the small-town staples - a bank, a pizza place, a couple of hair salons. It takes an hour to drive to Dodge City, the nearest shopping mall.

"I don't have someplace to go with friends," says Pariagua, the student from Bolivia. "I'm kind of bored."

But Pariagua, a senior, loves her host family. Her host father, Roy Hoffman, owns the lumberyard in town.

"It's neat for us," Hoffman says. "I hope Naty brings some experiences back. I know I'm really enjoying it."

Hoffman says he's been surprised just how accepting the community has been of the exchange students.

"Nobody looks at them like weirdos from someplace else," he says.

'Big family'

It's right after lunch, and the smell of hamburgers from the cafeteria is mixing with the smell of formaldehyde in Lee Goats' science lab.

Anita Loewen is trying to cut the brain out of a preserved shark.

"Make one clean cut at it, Anita," Goats says. "Don't saw at it."

She doesn't look up.

"Don't saw!" he repeats.

She stops and looks puzzled.

"What is saw?" she says.

Goats can't help but laugh.

"What is saw?" he says. "That was classic, Anita."

Loewen, a junior, is from Berlin, population 3.4 million. She's a singer and piano player, so her first choice for an American state to live in was Louisiana, with its jazz music. After that came Hawaii because of the beaches, and Tennessee because a lot of singers live in Nashville.

"I knew Coldwater was small, but when I first learned I was going there, I was so depressed," she says. "I didn't want to go to this place. I was so disappointed."

But now, she's glad things worked out this way.

She's learning an American experience, even if it wasn't the American experience she'd expected.

"It gives the kind of feeling of a big family," she says of Coldwater. "You know everybody. You know their names."


New2KU 11 years, 6 months ago

Good article, I grew up in Comanche County, and attended Coldwater High. The program was started back in the 80's, and has grown considerably. All the students I remember being involved had positive experiences. It is great to see the program continueing.

RightinLawrence 11 years, 6 months ago

If you would like to host...e-mail me at


I'd love to talk to you!!!

oldgoof 11 years, 6 months ago

A number of Lawrencians I know would benefit from a learning a new culture by spending some time in Western Kansas.

oldgoof 11 years, 6 months ago

Go Coldwater! I grew up in a similar SW Kansas town which had several international students over 30 years ago. They were great experiences, and the connections continue, and have taught us so much about who we are and how we are perceived in the rest of the world.

RightinLawrence 11 years, 6 months ago

AWESOME...Hey, I work for the Council on International Educational Exchange...It is the best experience EVER! My family is hosting its fifth student.

I currently have a one semester student, a boy from Germany, due to arrive in Lawrence on January 10th. If you are interested in opening your heart and home to this incredible experience...reply to this post and I will be happy to talk with you!!

More students will be arriving in August for the 2007-2008 school year. Lawrence districts only allow 6 kids per school...but we'd love to have you join the family of international exchange!

RightinLawrence 11 years, 6 months ago

From beautiful downtown topeka...

Actually...most American families are considered rural. I have placed 7 students in Attica, Kansas. The school has roughly 60 students and the the hundreds. The kids were met with a Welcome Picnic, the local Dairy Cone owner hosted a Christmas Party for them, the kids have had the opportunity to play football and basketball, everyone in town knows them...they are having a wonderful "Americana' experience!

There is terrific American culture found in America's small towns!!

cowgomoo 11 years, 6 months ago

Posted by from_beautiful_downtown_topeka (anonymous) on December 27, 2006 at 11:36 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I still haven't seen that "world's biggest ball of twine" thing that they've got out there in them neck of the woods.

What city was that in again?

It's in Cawker City.

The worlds largest hand dug well is about 100 miles away, so if you stand in front of the largest ball of twine facing in the direction of the largest hand dug well with a can take the worlds largest longest gimme.

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