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From Korea to Delano with Tiger spirit

January 28, 2008

Foreign exchange student from Seoul, South Korea hopes to be part of the 2008 DHS graduating class

By Jen Bakken
Staff Writer

Black and orange, Tiger pride is felt by students who walk through the halls of Delano High School.

Whether it is academics, the arts, or athletics, students are proud to be a part of their school and its accomplishments.

It is with this same spirit that they have rallied around a new classmate and welcomed him as a fellow Tiger.

This year, Joon-Beom (pronounced June-Bum), from Seoul, South Korea, joined the DHS senior class on the first day of school. Everyone affectionately calls him JB.

Imagine, as a teenager, flying more than 6,000 miles to another country, alone. You are struggling to learn the language, trying to make friends, and become part of a whole different culture.

You are living with strangers, adjusting to a 15-hour time difference, and even the food isn’t what you are used to. If you have trouble imagining what it would be like – JB can tell you.

“When I first got here, no one could understand me. It was scary. I was nervous,” JB remembered. “The first month, I was so quiet in school, it was hard to even order food.”

While living in South Korea, he was busy with strict studies. He attended an all-boys school where class began at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 5:20 p.m.

After school, he would go to an academy, where he prepared for college. With one younger brother, JB is the oldest child in his family. His father is a property owner, his mother is a scientist, and it was at her suggestion that he decided to come study in America.

“English is very important in Korea,” JB explained. “It can help you get a better job.”

JB came to this country through the Council for Educational Travel, USA (CETUSA), a non-profit organization.

CETUSA’s web site says in order to qualify for its foreign exchange student program, students must have a B or better academic average, excellent character references, speak the language of their chosen country, and exhibit the maturity to handle the rigors of adjusting to new attitudes and customs.

Although he qualified through CETUSA to study abroad in America, Delano High School counselor Susan Farbo questions whether he was truly prepared to be here.

Farbo has been with DHS for 15 years, has dealt with many exchange students, and has hosted foreign exchange students in her home.

At the beginning of the school year, DHS had two foreign exchange students from Korea. Both students had difficulty with language and taking part in high school classes.

“I was disappointed; their English skills were very poor,” Farbo said. “One student had to be sent back home in November, but JB has come a long way. He has a lot of personality, a good heart, and he’s very charismatic. The agency has really done a disservice to him.”

Since JB struggles with his language skills, he has to work harder to keep up with the other students and because he failed his senior social class, CETUSA has put him on an academic probation.

This means if he is unable to keep his grades up, he could be sent home to South Korea.

Initially, Farbo says she was asked by CETUSA to write a letter expelling JB from DHS, but she refused. He was then given two weeks to improve his grades, and CETUSA has now extended the probation to one month.

“I really want him to be able to stay,” said Joann Kilmer, regional manager for CETUSA. “He’s a nice boy.”

JB lived with Kilmer when he first came to Minnesota and attended DHS, but he asked to live with another family. He said he was uncomfortable, which is something Kilmer still feels bad about.

“I told him he didn’t have to move,” said Kilmer. “I feel bad about it and really want to help him.”

Improved grades isn’t the only thing needed in JB’s situation. The host family he is currently living with is unable to keep him due to job changes and related travel requirements.

This means a home is being sought to help JB stay in Delano.

Though he cannot receive an actual high school diploma from DHS, he would like to stay here and experience the American graduation ceremony with his classmates.

The entire class of 2008 would like to have JB with them as they wear their caps and gowns and say good-bye to DHS.

“It wouldn’t feel right without JB there,” Bradey Lemmerman (Toast), a DHS senior, who considers JB one of his closest friends, said.

With the large number of foreign exchange student organizations, it is unclear exactly how many students are sent home because of poor language skills or not being prepared to be in America.

According to Danielle Grijalva, director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, they are sent back to their countries for other reasons, too.

Sometimes, there is a temporary placement for the student and a permanent host family isn’t found.

She said agency representatives and managers are not supposed to host students in their own homes. Other times, things don’t work out with a host family and students are faced with not having a home.

Whether it is due to job changes, situations within the host family itself, or personality and cultural differences, this can be a scary and stressful event for exchange students.

“Too many students leave our country with a horrible impression,” said Grijalva. “They feel threatened with being sent home by no fault of their own, and the families spend $8,000 - $12,000 for their children to experience America. We need to make sure these students are happy, safe, and return home with positive memories.”

For JB, many of those positive memories will be of DHS, its staff, and all of the students who he now calls friends. He has been welcomed and accepted as part of the senior class.

When JB qualified through CETUSA, he began his trip to America with three plane transfers and about 20 hours in flight.

First arriving in Michigan, he attended a two-week camp with exchange students from other countries, intended to prepare him for his experience in this country.

From there, he came to Delano and entered Tiger territory, where it took him a while to feel comfortable.

Initially, he was shy, nervous, and worried about being picked on. Though he started learning English in South Korea in third grade, he found it difficult to understand and speak the language in America.

Classes were particularly tough for him, and referring to his translation dictionary took a lot of extra time. JB admits Delano students were very helpful to him.

“Juice (Michael Rajewsky, a DHS senior) helped me a lot,” JB said. “I couldn’t do anything, and he would help me.”

After getting to know Rajewsky, JB met Phil McElroy, also a senior, while playing soccer, and began to make many friends. Being able to play soccer was a fun experience for him because the school he attended in South Korea didn’t offer any sports.

JB’s sense of humor and laughter are contagious and he is a master of sarcasm. He is a well-liked and very social student.

“I think he knows more people than a lot of us do,” Lemmerman said.

Although his English skills have improved since the beginning of the year, school is still difficult for him.

It has been challenging for Farbo to find classes for him in which he can be successful.

She arranged for him to be a student aid in Kathy Workman’s first grade class at Delano Elementary School, thinking it may be a good fit, and Workman couldn’t agree more and said the children really like him.

“I thought it may help him with some of his language skills,” said Farbo. “And it would not only be a good experience for him, but for the first grade students as well.”

JB really enjoys working with the children, talks about how cute they are and laughs about them trying to pronounce his name.

“One couldn’t remember Joon-Beom,” smiled JB. “And called me Jelly Butter.”

There are many differences in culture, education, language, and food between South Korea and America.

Some of the differences that stand out to JB are how students interact with each other and with teachers.

“In America, you can be friends with any age, but in Korea, you can’t because you have to respect anyone older than you, even students,” he said. “And teachers laugh here.”

Traditional meals in Korea always consist of rice as the main dish with many side dishes.

In America, JB discovered nachos and salsa for the first time, says his favorite food is steak, and his first experience with pretzels came during his flight to America.

“I opened the bag, took (a) bite, and spit it right out,” he laughed. “I checked the expiration date thinking something was wrong, but I like them now.”

After graduation, JB will return to South Korea, get his GED, and hopes to attend college at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) for culinary arts.

He will, however, need to spend 14 months in the South Korean Army at some point, as it is required of all men in his country.

Besides JB, there is currently one other exchange student, Max Simon, attending DHS as a junior, from Germany, and, according to Farbo, DHS students are very fond of him, as well.

Over the years, many foreign exchange students have walked the halls of Delano High School, and JB is proud to be one of them.

The relationships developed between this one young man from Seoul, South Korea and the student body of Delano High School have created wonderful memories and life-long friendships.

The black and orange Tiger spirit of Delano High School is something JB will proudly cherish forever.

If you are interested in helping JB stay in Delano, contact Susan Farbo, DHS counselor at (763) 972-3365 ext. 2237 or Joann Kilmer, regional manager from CETUSA, at (612) 715-3223.

If you would like to become involved in helping foreign exchange students have positive experiences in our country or find out more information, you can visit the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students’ (CSFES) web site at www.csfes.org.