MIHS an ‘international experience’

Mercer Island High School exchange students Elise Lerstad, left, and Diego Corvalan. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Mercer Island High School exchange students Elise Lerstad, left, and Diego Corvalan.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

When Mercer Island High School’s June 11 graduation arrives, seniors Elise Lerstad and Diego Corvalan will be taking a slightly different path than the rest of the class of 2009: back home to high school in Norway and Paraguay.

Both are part of a group of 10 exchange students hosted by Mercer Island families attending public schools this year. Over nine months, the two have experienced the life and struggles of the American teenager. While not allowed to drive a car or take an after-school job to pay for shopping and fun, Lerstad and Corvalan have done their best to blend into the Islander community in obvious and imperceptible ways. As the year winds to a close, they are both a little homesick, but sad at what they soon will leave behind.

“We’ve made many good friendships here,” Corvalan said.

Both were placed with Mercer Island families by AFS Intercultural Programs, one of several student exchange programs approved by the state to oversee their year abroad. Visiting from Asunción, Paraguay, the 6-foot-tall Corvalan, 17, is probably the more visible of the pair, playing in a starting position on the Islanders undefeated soccer team.

“It’s more competitive here,” he said, referring to the differences between American soccer and his homegrown South American style of fútbol. Corvalan said the team camaraderie and fitness regime run by Islander soccer coach Steve Newman was what made playing varsity so much fun.

“He thinks I’m joking when I say I’m going to visit him [in Paraguay],” Newman said. The athletic Paraguayan also recently learned how to snowboard and played in at least one high school football game as a kicker.

“I wanted to go experience a different culture,” he said.

Lerstad, on the other hand, is the more reserved of the two. The blonde Norwegian volunteers as a teacher’s aide at the high school’s front office, though she doesn’t see it as a big deal and seemed a little embarrassed when MIHS Principal John Harrison called out to her one recent afternoon.

“She does a great job,” announced Harrison, with a smile.

While both come from different cultures thousands of miles away, they said they hold more in common with their Mercer Island homes than they realized. Still, there were a few odd local habits that did not escape Lerstad’s attention.

“They drive everywhere,” she said. “We ride our bikes a lot more in Norway. But hey, if [the family] wants to, that’s fine with me!”

Lerstad’s host family, Deborah and Keith Streeter, said the 18-year-old had embraced her new life as big sister in their home. Her host-sister learned how to say “I like milk chocolate” and “No-no, little boy,” in Norwegian. She even taught the family how to cope with the unusual December snow.

“She showed us how to roll snow down the hill to make snowmen,” Deborah said. “We’re just not accustomed to having that.”

Corvalan’s host parents, Pat and Norman Scott, already had a little intercultural experience of their own — meeting and falling in love while visiting as exchange students in Japan. According to their South American visitor, an interesting twist to his year in their home is regularly dining with chopsticks. Living in Japan for nearly 20 years before moving to Mercer Island, the Scotts now have one of their own sons in an exchange program.

“It was our way of giving back,” Pat said. “It’s a wonderful way to learn about a culture and country.”

Damayonti Sengupta Rower said of the students, “They’re not looking for someone who is just like themselves. [AFS is] looking for a person who sees the differences and is willing to make it work.”

For more information on AFS Intercultural Programs, contact AFS Regional Volunteer Development Manager Damayonti Sengupta Rower at (206) 420-4686.

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