Being an exchange student at Shaker High is a family tradition.
By Jennifer Proe
Nothing can make a teen’s eyes glaze over like hearing this from a parent: “Back when I was in school….”
Except, perhaps, when the sentence ends: “I participated in this amazing study abroad program that changed my life.”
And thus the seed is planted for the next generation of world travelers. That was the case for these three families, whose children followed in their parents’ footsteps, across the ocean and halfway around the world.
Fashion trends, music, technology, and political landscapes may have shifted greatly during the decades between their travels, but the enduring benefits of studying abroad remained the same: to broaden one’s horizons, to see things from another point of view, and to experience new foods.
Finland to Shaker. Repeat
In 1989, a young man from Finland named Tero Silvola came to Shaker Heights High School for a year of study. Now, 26 years later, it’s his son Elias’ turn to walk those halls.
“I’ve been interested in coming here since I was little,” says Elias. “My father was so pleased that he had done it, I wanted to do it, too.”
Tero, now the CEO of his own software company in Helsinki, was hosted by the family of Robbie and Jay Schonfeld, with whom he stays in touch. Elias, 18, is staying with the family of Emily and Peter Geier, whose children, Grace and Wilder, have become like siblings to him.
Here’s how their experiences stack up:
Tero: “I grew up in a very small town in the Finnish countryside, so Shaker Heights felt very different. I enjoyed the overall feeling and energy level in the U.S.”
Elias: “I came through New York on my way to Cleveland. I had to speak English all day, every day, which was exhausting at
first. Shaker is more relaxed and has more space; it’s different from the city feeling of Helsinki, where I am from.”
Tero: “Traveling to Washington, D.C., Florida, the Rocky Mountains, and Chicago; seeing all of these places was
very educational. Also, my everyday life was extremely rewarding. I played soccer and hockey on Shaker teams
and finalized my studies as a senior. We went to sporting events for the Browns, Cavaliers, and Indians, and to many museums and concerts.”
Elias: “Playing on the Shaker varsity soccer team and winning the district championship for the first time in 46 years. Also, meeting Roger Federer at a tennis tournament in Cincinnati, and going to Costa
Rica over winter break.”
Elias: “In Finland, we don’t have school sports, just club sports. School is very different here. The lessons are longer in Finland,
and we have 15 minutes between classes, not four. In Finland, homework is more about creativity
than it is here. It’s easier to make friends here than it is in Finland, where there are more cliques. People here are interested to meet you. I was surprised to find American culture so warm and open.”
What They Will (Or Still) Miss
Tero: “I still miss my host mother Robbie’s wonderful cooking, the special forward-minded dynamic atmosphere in the U.S., and the multiple cultural and sporting events – so many things!”
Elias: “I will really miss my U.S. family and friends, working out at the Skating Club, going to Shaker Heights High School, and Chipotle. I think there is a market for it in Finland!”
Goslar Times Three
In 1985, Beth Shaver (SHHS ’86) decided to take a flyer on an exchange program to Goslar, Germany. Founded in 1978, it’s the oldest-standing exchange program between a U.S. and German school.
Every fall, a group of about 20 German students come from the Ratsgymnasium in Goslar to Shaker Heights High School. Shaker students then go to Goslar that summer for a month-long visit.
“A friend had an older sister who was involved in the program when I was in junior high,” says Shaver, now a realtor with Keller Williams. “I spent a lot of time with the German students who were visiting and it was so much fun to hang out with them. I took German at the High School just so I could participate in the program.”
Something about that experience must have rubbed off on her daughters, Lexi Oswald (SHHS ’10), who is finishing up her studies at Kent State University, and Olivia Oswald (SHHS ’13), a junior at the University of Kentucky. Both participated in the Goslar exchange program during their time at Shaker.
“They visited some of the same places I did,” says Shaver, “and we had similar stories.”
Beth: “How old and beautiful the buildings were, the cobblestone streets, people wearing socks with sandals, and how easy it was to get around by train and walking.”
Lexi: “I loved the food! Being able to leave school and go into town to the bakery was awesome. I also liked their fashion. I still own a pair of leggings I bought there.”
Olivia: “It was my first time in Europe. I went into the trip with no knowledge of what Goslar would look like in person. Its beauty made me fall in love with it.”
Beth: “Taking a train into East Germany. It was 1985, so the wall was still up and it was a little scary. East German guards got on the train to inspect everything, even changing the toilet paper.”
Lexi: “Hiking up the Hartz Mountains and seeing Dachau. That experience opened my eyes. I also enjoyed riding the ICE (high speed) train around Germany. I wish we had something like that in the United States.”
Olivia: “Going on bike tours in Berlin and Munich. Another great memory is going to public viewings for the Euro Cup. Germans go crazy for soccer.”
How It Changed Them
Beth: “Before I went, I was sort of shy. This trip opened me up and I became more outgoing. Seeing how big the world is, and meeting new people was very exciting.”
Lexi: “I was always hesitant to try new things, but now I just go for it. My German definitely improved while I was there, which helped me when I took German my first two years in college. I don’t mind walking long distances anymore; I’d almost prefer to walk.”
Olivia: “After seeing Germany, I learned that there is a huge world out there with lots of people to meet and cultures to experience. It opened my eyes to the bigger picture and really encouraged me to travel more. I’m going to minor in German so I do have plans to go back.”
Down Under and Over
One morning, while listening to an announcement in homeroom about the deadline to apply for AFS programs, Beth Hise (SHHS ’85) decided, quite suddenly: “I want to do that!”
At that late date, the only programs still accepting enrollment were in the southern hemisphere, so it was off to Australia with no idea what was in store for her.
“In 1984, Australia was a relatively unknown country in America. My Dad and I got out the atlas to look up where I would be living in Sydney,” recalls Beth.
Fast forward to 2015, and Beth now finds herself a full-fledged Aussie, working as head of exhibitions for Sydney Living Museums. “After college, I got a job offer at the Australian Museum and I jumped at the chance. One thing led to another, and I’m still here,” she says.
Turn about being fair play, Beth was not entirely surprised when her daughter, Eliza Steele, declared an interest in a year of study abroad. Having family in Shaker gave her a built-in host family with her aunt, Amy Hise (SHHS ‘82), and cousin Austin, a rising junior.
Beth: “I attended a very conservative Anglican girls’ school, where I was stripped of all my typical 1980s accessories – no color in my hair, no big earrings, everyone wearing the exact same dress. I remember feeling out of sync, like everyone knew something I didn’t.”
Eliza: “School at home was terrible for me. My math scores were the worst. The teaching style here is better for me. Now, English and math are my favorite. There are more opportunities and classes; I’m taking psychology, astronomy, and graphic design. Here, everything is college-driven. In Australia they don’t even mention going to university.”
How It Changed Them
Beth: “In addition to expanding my horizons, I got to know myself better and developed a useful degree of resilience that has stood me in good stead. It’s impossible to have this kind of experience it changing the path your future takes.”
Eliza: “The biggest for me has been my education, and being happier here. I have friends who enjoy my sense of humor. I’ve also gotten to spend more time with my grandparents (Richard and Barbara Hise), who have become almost more like parents to me. We go shopping together, to the Rock Hall, and out to eat.”
Eliza will miss these things when she goes back this summer (or winter, as it will be at home). So much so, that she plans to come back to Shaker in the fall to continue her schooling, and maybe, just maybe, go to college in the U.S.
But until then, she says, “I’m really going to miss Chipotle. I’m obsessed with it.”
To learn more about international exchange programs and opportunities offered through the Shaker schools, visit www.shaker.org/internationaltravel.aspx.