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October 02, 2012 10:00 PM

Foreign In Florence

Florence, SD

The Florence School in northeastern South Dakota has approximately 200 students in grades K-12. But two of them have traveled more than 2,000 miles just to go to school.

The foreign exchange program is nothing new, but it's growing in the Rushmore State, especially in rural areas.

Mrs. Randall's business class teaches the usual facts and figures of accounting at Florence High School. But much like the business world, this class has more of an international flair.

"Everybody asks you questions: 'Can you do that?' 'Do you have that in Belgium?'" Belgium exchange student Nicolas Teughels said.

18-year-old Teughels has been in South Dakota for two months, living with a host family in Watertown. He's originally from Brussels, the capital of the European country of Belgium, approximately 4,400 miles away.

"In Belgium, I speak all the time French, Dutch and then English. I learned for six years," Teughels said. "And I know German a little bit because there is a small part of Belgium that is German."

But only one of those four languages is spoken here. And the senior admits it was a difficult adjustment.

"I was thinking in French, Dutch and German," Teughels said. "So, I have to think all the time in English. And you lose a little bit at the beginning because you're searching your words. You don't know what to say."

"Here, I listen to everything in English. I see just English; I talk just English," Mexico exchange student Roberto Carrillo said.

17-year-old Carrillo is from Puebla, Mexico. It's a mere 2,000 miles away from Florence. But the language barrier is a problem he and Teughels share together.

"I used to watch movies in English with Spanish subtitles," Carrillo said. "I wanted to listen to words, so that helps a lot."

"Now, I'm dreaming in English, I'm doing everything in English," Teughels said. "And sometimes, when I speak to my family or friends, I don't find my word in French."

But the communication gap doesn't mean the two exchange students aren't communicating. In fact, they're able to keep regular contact with their families back home.

"It's not so difficult because we have internet and we can Skype," Teughels said.

"Once they're here, they become just a family member and all of a sudden, they're a member of the community," Barb Hoyles with the International Student Exchange said.

The number of exchange students has grown since 2008 and Hoyles believes an atmosphere like Florence is helpful.

"The small, rural community gives them a different take," Hoyles said. "It takes them out of the city, so to speak, and gives them a little different exchange of what other people are used to living."

It also gives them a more ideal classroom size and more individual attention, which can be helpful in such a social setting.

"I don't talk a lot yet," Carrillo said. "But people try to talk to me, so it's nice."

"The people are open.  They accept you; they ask you questions," Teughels said. "So, you're speaking all the time and learning every day."

While the cultures may be drastically different, the idea of being a student is just the same. And that includes getting involved in extracurricular activities.

"It's something different," Teughels said. "When you speak in Europe and Belgium about the USA, we speak about American football."

Teughels plays a variety of positions for the Florence-Henry football team. Meanwhile, Carrillo acts almost like a teaching assistant for his Spanish class.

"It's good because you don't have to work a lot. I mean, I have to work, but I have the knowledge, so it's easier for me," Carrillo said.

And while Teughels and Carrillo are just getting started in their year-long journey, it's an experience that will span both the globe and their lives.

"You know about other cultures and I can practice my English," Carrillo said.

"You have to discover another culture and the students discover another culture," Teughels said.

And sometimes, you have to discover another phenomenon.

David Brown: "Have you ever seen snow?"
Carrillo: "No.  Not in Mexico; there's no snow."
Brown: "You know you're going to see snow, right?"
Carrillo: "I know."

"Learning just doesn't stop at a book," Hoyles said. "They can take a lot of things home that they've learned just within their family."

And even though the Florence family is small and temporary, it's a bond that's not limited by borders.

Both students say they appreciate the small town nature of Florence. In particular, they both like the fact there's less traffic and more open space. They also believe people are more relaxed and not in as much of a hurry.

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