Finding family

Exchange student finds home and friends in Waldorf

Friday, Nov. 13, 2009

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Staff photos by EMILY BARNES
The Smith family of Waldorf grew by one when German exchange student Johann Stumpf-Fetizon moved in to study in America. Dad Peter, left, mom Vicki, Johann, 16, and the Smiths' daughter, Maggie, 14, and Eden, 11, make milkshakes on a recent afternoon.

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Noah Smith, center, and Johann, both 16, listen to Eden tell a story. In addition to cultural differences, Johann, who has an older brother, is adjusting to having two "sisters."

At the end of 11th grade, Johann Stumpf-Fetizon had a choice to make.

The German teenager could stay in Cologne for a "revision year" — a yearlong review of what he learned the previous year — or he could spend the year abroad, in America, as a foreign exchange student.

His older brother, Timothy, 19, advised Johann that the review year could be "boring."

Johann opted to do an exchange year and through the Center for Cultural Interchange, he wound up at the home of Peter and Vicki Smith in Waldorf and right into a family of American siblings.

The Smiths have four kids — save for the youngest, Eden, 11, — all are teenagers, Cameron, 17, Noah, 16, and Maggie, 14, who attend Thomas Stone High School. With Johann in the mix this year, the couple has a kid in each grade at the Waldorf high school.

"I think I fit in," Johann said of his place in the family. Starting school with three of the Smith kids also made the first few days easier. "I already know some people … I already have some friends."

He and Noah quickly became buddies, bonding over video games.

The two can't walk by each other without one pushing or bumping into each the other on purpose, a tangle of arms as one tries to bother the other.

"They are two little puppies," said Vicki, laughing.

"Johann is just like Noah," Cameron added.

Is that a good or bad thing?

"Definitely good," Noah chimed in.

"They're both into video games," Cameron expanded. "They're both energetic. They'll be sitting next to each other throwing a ball back and forth going on and on about some football video game and its like, ‘What are you talking about?'"

At Stone, Johann excels at soccer and might join the lacrosse team with Noah in the spring.

On a recent Friday night, Maggie, a field hockey player, was slated to work the concession stand at a football game.

As she made late afternoon milkshakes for everyone, plans were sussed out — who would be driving with whom, who would be there, do you want to go or not, what else is going on?

It is the buzzing of an all American house on a Friday night in fall. It is exactly the sort of experience Monique Graham, the area representative for CCI, hopes exchange students are having.

While a certain amount of homesickness is expected, Graham said she tells exchange students to soak up as much as they can while in the States. It is advised that students don't dwell on what is going on at home but to focus on their studies and the present.

Yet, in a world that is digitally connected, no one is ever very far from home and a familiar voice.

E-mails go back and forth, "Vonage is wonderful," said Vicki, about the Internet phone company that allows free calls to Europe.

Graham, who said exchange students can fit into various households, — empty nesters, single parents — added that the students are carefully screened, have outstanding resumes and are mature enough to handle a year away from home.

The Smiths, who are involved in mission work, housing the homeless and giving shelter to those who need it, hosted two French students over the summer for three weeks at a time.

"I always thought this would the perfect time to host a student," Peter said. "It's easy if you already got a lot of children."

As a child of a missionary, Peter spent time as a child overseas in Northern Ireland and in Cyprus and always knew he wanted his children exposed to different cultures.

Vicki worked with the school system to move the registration deadline for foreign exchange students back, allowing Johann to spend his junior year in the States.

Graham, a Maurice J. McDonough High School graduate, was an exchange student herself.

The daughter of a Belgian mother, Graham spent a year in Belgium and in college studied in France and Russia.

She believes that American students can benefit from studying abroad.

"I wish more U.S. students would go overseas," said Graham, who has worked for CCI for about a year and a half. "It is the experience of a lifetime.

It broadens horizons and really opens doors."

Johann — who some classmates have taken to calling John — is definitely benefitting from his time with the Smiths.

Back home, he has an older brother. In the States, he has two sisters.

Luckily the Smiths have enough bathrooms to accommodate the crush of teens getting ready for school in the morning.

And Johann — who tags along with Noah and Cameron at the boys' Bible study group — isn't against sibling rivalry.

"He'll pull rank …," said Cameron about calling "shotgun" on car trips. "He'll be like, ‘I'm older and taller.'"

The differences between American and German schools are really just small things, Johann said. In Germany, the rules are less strict.

"We don't need hall passes," he said.

But the relationships he is building are strong and there is talk among the Smiths and Johann's parents of saving frequent flier miles to make sure Noah can come to Germany for a visit.

"He's kinda my friend now," Johann told the Smiths and his parents.

"Kinda" your friend, the adults wondered.

"Well," Johann explained. "He's my brother."

Worldwide learning

To find out more about the various exchange programs offered through the Center for Cultural Interchange, including programs for adults, go to