Julius Kern, 17, comes from a town in Germany similar in population to Sanger.
TripAdvisor.com says the best thing to do in Leimen is travel the 4 miles to Heidelberg, a larger city with many more attractions. TripAdvisor says nearly the same thing about Sanger, directing visitors to head to Fresno, Clovis or even Reedley.
But Kern, along with four other exchange students this year, got a chance to get up close and personal with this central San Joaquin Valley farming community and discover one of its greatest attributes. The people. The teenage demographic in particular.
“Sanger High is like a family,” said Swamy Stefaner, 17 from Bolzano, Italy.
Stefaner and Philippine Sakkers, 17 from Laren, Netherlands, demonstrated their familiarity with their extended family of about 3,100 students and hundreds of teachers, administrators and classified staff when they left the student government classroom and walked past principal Dan Chacon’s office. Inside, former football coach Chuck Shidan appeared engaged in a very earnest conversation with Chacon, but both happily dropped the topic to engage the pair from Europe. And after the brief exchange, they warmly bid goodbye to the pair as well as Maarten Kool and Kern.
“They’re phenomenal,” said Jim Simpson, a former Sanger Unified administrator who’s now the coordinator for Kern, Kool, Sakkers and Stefaner.
Deciding to become an exchange student can sound wonderful. Various programs promote the experience of learning a new culture first-hand, seeing unfamiliar things and getting a whole new outlook on life.
Reality, of course, presents a new student from another country with immediate challenges. An exchange student knows nobody, must navigate a new school and new routines and learn the slang, culture and colloquialisms right away.
And that student needs friends. Yesterday.
At Sanger High, Kern, Kool, Stefaner and Sakkers made friends pretty quickly. They joined sports teams, participated in after-school events and got involved in student government. They also developed a bond amongst themselves.
“I think we’ll be friends forever,” said Kool, 18 from Brummen, Netherlands.
“We’re friends with each other’s friends, too,” Sakkers said.
“Very close,” Kern said.
Kern said two of his fellow water polo players, Dominic Daddino and Aaron Avalos, plan to visit him this summer in Germany. Daddino and Kool are also close, playing on the school’s golf team together. Kern and Avalos currently are members of the school’s swim team and enjoy competing, and winning.
Sakkers said she’s already booked a ticket for a summer trip to Bolzano, where TripAdvisor says one of the popular places to visit is a mall called Twenty. Hearing this, Stefaner burst out laughing. She said the mall’s OK to visit in the winter when it’s cold but there’s much more to occupy one’s time during the summer months.
Photographs show Bolzano as a scenic hamlet surrounded by mountains. Many of its buildings have clay tiled roofs and white stucco walls. Farms dot the hillsides with terraced crops. It sits not far from the Austrian border in Northern Italy. In other words, a destination of historical beauty many travelers would enjoy. TripAdvisor lists multiple sights and things to do.
Kool said it’s difficult sorting out exactly what memories of his trip to the United States that will stick with him. But he gave it a shot.
“Best one,” he said, pausing a bit to think. He mentioned a couple of trips he enjoyed with his host family. But then he started talking about going with friends to Shaver Lake. “We did it twice now. Went skiing. Then we went to the lake, walked through the forest. Also just hanging out with my American friends.”
Kool also mentioned Kern’s skiing ability. He’s good, very good, Kool said. Kern gave an aw shucks sort of shrug.
Sakkers said what will always stick with her is Sanger High’s school spirit and “all the things we’ve done. It’s something we don’t have.” She said her school has about 800 students. She said she enjoyed events like the dances.
“And I got to know a lot of people,” Sakkers said. “And just going shopping.”
She said, and Stefaner backed her up, that she wasn’t likely to be heading to the Twenty when she arrives this summer in Bolzano.
Stefaner said a trip with her host family in December was one of her highlights. “I really liked my trip to Florida,” she said. “We went to the Bahamas for four days (as a side trip).” She said she saw Nassau, the capital, and the pretty tourist areas but also got a chance to see where people really lived and experience how nice they were.
“I really liked traveling with the football team,” she said. Sakkers agreed. The two joined the cheerleading squad where they said they got to meet a big group of friends. They both said they enjoyed Paso Robles and going to Pismo after the Arroyo Grande playoff game.
Sakkers said she went to a Lakers game.
So did Stefaner. “LaBron played,” she said. “It was his first game after he was injured.”
Stefaner said she also enjoyed traveling to Santa Cruz but not as much as Tinseltown. “I loved LA. I really, really liked it.”
It was hard to separate the conversation when Stefaner and Sakkers spoke. They finished each other’s sentences and shared many of the same experiences. They said they loved Magic Mountain.
“I love roller coasters,” Sakkers said.
At this point, Kern and Kool may have agreed as all began talking about various rides that old people like me would immediately exchange for a trip to Starbucks.
Kern said he really enjoyed going to Santa Cruz and San Jose. He said they tried to get into Google and various other tech companies and see how the place was set up for employees. But they traveled on a weekend. “I think it’s kind of cool,” he said. “You hear stories about how they’re super chill there.”
He did describe what it was like to experience the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, and it sounded a bit unsettling.
Kool said he plans to attend college. “It would be cool to work for a multi-national company,” he said. He explained a little about his country’s school system mostly by saying it’s completely different. But his choice of major, which is apparently not exactly the right phrasing, is commercial economics.
“I’m going to study creative business,” Sakkers said. “It’s more like journalism and marketing. I’ll live in Amsterdam.”
Stefaner said she’s got another year of high school left, explaining to the nods of her fellow exchange students that her high school requires five years rather than the U.S. four. “After that, I want to move to Vienna and attend MedUni (Medical University of Vienna),” she said.
Stefaner said she plans on studying to become a neurosurgeon “because it sounds really interesting.” And she added, “I really want to come back to the United States. I would move to San Diego where it’s warm all the time.” She said she likes bigger cities.
Kern said he’s uncertain what his future holds. “I still have two years of high school,” he said. But he said he plans on attending college.
Kern also said this past season playing as an Apache was his first in water polo. He said he’s an accomplished swimmer.
Kool said he played golf previously but not on a day-to-day basis as part of a team. He said his game has improved. Sakkers and Stefaner said their experiences as cheerleaders helped them make friends. (They didn’t say this but the Apache tomahawk chop may be something they learned and can never forget.)
All remarked on friends they’ve made. Kool said he made friends beyond sports, just attending classes, and the rest agreed.
But they said they really appreciated confiding in each other. “When I’m feeling homesick, they know what it feels like,” Stefaner said.
Kern’s hometown of Leimen isn’t completely without attractions. Like Sanger, it has a small wine industry. Kool’s town has a dealer that sells classic cars, and Sakkers town has a respected museum.
And any of them would likely be happy to give a tour.
Simpson said being a host family is rewarding. “It is just beautiful the way it touches lives and creates a lifelong bond for the student and you — their host family,” he said via email. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The reporter can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.