Exchange students have 'big' fun

Swedish children get taste of America while staying with host families in Steamboat

Big.

From our buildings to our cars to our meals, "big" is the adjective a group of Swedish students will use to describe America to their friends and families back home.

And big isn't necessarily bad, especially when it comes to ski mountains, the students said.

Their eyes light up when they describe skiing at the Steamboat Ski Area, which they said is much bigger than the ski area in Sweden.

Being in the United States has other benefits, too, Ulrika Wall said.

"The pizza is much better here," said the eighth-grader from Sollentuna, just north of the Swedish capital of Stockholm.

There's been much more to the students' three-week trip than pizza and skiing, however.

Museum trips, cross country skiing, movies and shopping have played a role, too.

"Most of them can't believe all the fun things they've done," said Steamboat Springs Middle School teacher Kerry Kerrigan.

And of course there's the educational aspect to the foreign exchange program coordinated each of the past 12 years by Steamboat Springs Middle School and Heenelundsskolan, a kindergarten through ninth-grade school in Sollentuna.

The Swedish students accompany their American student-hosts to class each morning and are expected to keep up with their work from home.

But some of the lessons the students learn through the program aren't as tangible as ones taught by teachers in a classroom.

"They learn tolerance, flexibility and adventure," Kerrigan said. "It just opens the world up to them. They learn things are different, and that's OK."

The exchange program between Steamboat Springs and Sollentuna began more than a decade ago. In its beginnings, the program was only for teachers.

"It was just too intense," Kerrigan said, describing the experience of teachers who were expected to go into a foreign classroom and pick up -- in a new culture -- where the regular teacher left off.

"Then we thought the cultural exchange would be better with kids involved," she said.

This is the sixth year the program has been geared toward students, and its popularity continues to increase. More than two dozen Steamboat Springs Middle School students applied for the exchange program this year. In response to the demand, the two schools decided to increase the number of students on the exchange to eight.

The Swedish students and their teacher chaperone, Grel Heden, arrived in Denver on Feb. 26. They stayed overnight in Denver and met up with their Steamboat host families the next day. As part of the exchange program, the host families are the parents of the Steamboat students who will travel to Sweden on April 16, and vice versa. The host families pay for all the dinners and activities for their exchange student, and the gesture is reciprocated when their child travels to Sweden, Kerrigan said.

Community support is essential to the program, she said. The Steamboat Ski Area provided complimentary lift tickets for the Swedish students, SportStalker provided complimentary ski rentals, and a variety of other businesses also have provided free services for the visiting students, who got a tour of a couple of Routt County cattle and sheep ranches Friday. C.J. and Nancy Mucklow, who are hosting one of the Swedish students, organized and guided the tour to show American agriculture to the visitors.

The Sollentuna students go to class every morning with their American student-hosts and are expected to keep up on their school work from Sweden. The same will be expected of Steamboat students when they travel next month to Sollentuna with Kerrigan.

Skiing, meeting new people and improving his English were the reasons Erik Kullgren applied to be part of the exchange.

And is he having fun?

"The best time," the student said.

The experience Steamboat students will have in Sweden could be more difficult considering that none of them speak Swedish. All of the Swedish children speak English.

"They won't understand a thing," Trille Jacobsson said.

But Jacobsson is confident Steamboat students will feel as welcomed in Sweden as the Sollentuna students have felt here. Heden agreed.

"We feel real welcomed by the families and all the kids," the librarian said. "It's a fantastic adventure for us, and we're enjoying ourselves a lot."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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