Harry's Gang: Exchange program creates bonds
September 22, 2023
School kids seem to always create a language of their own, mostly, I assume, so they can communicate with each other without their parents knowing what they are talking about.
But when a kid goes to the effort to learn German, he just may have an ulterior motive.
In this case, that motive was to be able to join Cloquet high school German teacher Cara Jago, known as "Frau Yago" to her students, on her biannual trip to Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany for three weeks, immersing themselves with German high school students and their families. In exchange, those German students come to Cloquet for three weeks. The German kids are here now, since the Cloquet kids went to their school last June.
It's the GAPP program - the German American Partnership Program - an international effort funded by the German and U.S. federal governments, and through participating students. The exchange program has been around in Cloquet since 1996. Cloquet partners with the Gewerbeschule school, which has about 800 kids in grades 5-12 on a college-prep curriculum.
This year, my Tommy went to stay with Sinan Sunel, a bright, athletic 16-year-old boy with a clever sense of humor, his parents, Nurgel and Cihat Sunel, and his brother, Efe, and sister, Nilay. They're Turks by descent, but Germans for two generations. So, Tommy is getting the experience of two cultures. Sinan's 14 other classmates are scattered around Cloquet, learning American customs sprinkled with Scandinavian and Baltic traditions.
It's been great having Sinan in our house, as he had already bonded with Tommy during his visit to Germany last summer, and the kids kept up the relationship through social media such as WhatsApp. So, when we picked up Sinan last Friday, he knew what to expect from our family, and he fit right in.
Sinan has expressed an interest in law, and has an interest in politics too, so we get along just fine. But the real treat is listening to Tommy, his brother, Patrick, and Sinan discuss culture and world affairs, articulate and reflective, over meals and card games and during rides in the car. I suppose they also enjoy playing tennis, soccer, long bike rides, and cross-country runs, because they all spend a lot of time together doing those things too. And the Cloquet kids and German kids have all been getting together frequently, which is fun (and loud). They stay out a little later at night than I'm comfortable with, but I endure it.
Frau Yago tells me that lifelong relationships are often formed, and many go back to visit each other for years to come.
"It's been an amazing program. Kids are, at first, going outside their comfort zone (both culturally and overcoming the language barrier) but by the end of the program cycle, we see lasting friendships and kids with the confidence to become world citizens and to travel on their own, seeing the similarities between cultures and appreciating our own culture," she told me.
It's not cheap. But there is a GAPP scholarship kids can apply for, and the local Eagles Club and Cloquet Educational Foundation have generously helped reduce the cost for each student. There's some fundraising, but Frau Yago encourages the kids to get a job. "It helps them buy into the whole program," she said.
Sinan leaves at the end of next week, at least for now. He joked that he's going back to Germany for the weekend to change his clothes and then he'll be back. Whether it's in a few weeks or a few years, Sinan will always be welcome here.