When 17-year-old Marnouk Van der Laan arrived in Indiana last Sunday, she immediately noticed one thing.
“I saw a lot of cornfields,” she said. “A lot of cornfields.”
But even with all of the agriculture surrounding it, Van der Laan said Seymour is much larger than her hometown of Numansdorp, a small village in the Netherlands.
“I would say Seymour is twice as big,” she said comparing the two communities.
Van der Laan is a foreign exchange student living with Seymour Community School Corp. teachers Scott and Jennifer Miller and their family for the next 10 months.
She is a junior at Seymour High School and began the new school year with all other Seymour students on Wednesday.
“It went good,” she said of her first day of classes.
She may have to switch out of her Level I French class, however, because it’s too easy, she said.
Besides her native language of Dutch, Van der Laan speaks three other languages — German, French and English. This year at Seymour, she is taking her first Spanish class and will be a member of the girls cross-country team.
“I like languages, so I wanted to try a new one,” she said of why she signed up to take a Level I Spanish class.
It was last summer when she began to seriously look at what opportunities were available to study abroad, she said.
“First, I had to convince my parents,” she said. “They were hesitant at first, but eventually, they thought it was a great opportunity, so I was allowed to go.”
Her love of language is one of the reasons she wanted to come to the United States. She said she is most excited about attending an American school and seeing what life here is like.
“I wanted to improve my English and have this new life experience,” she said.
Although she is fluent in English, Van der Laan said she is nervous about speaking it all of the time.
“Sometimes, I just go back into Dutch, and no one can understand me,” she said.
There are some things that are similar about her high school, Willem Van Oranje, which is in Holland, compared to Seymour High School, but many things that are different, she said.
“We have classes that are 45 minutes. One day, you are done at noon, and sometimes at 4 p.m.,” she said. “Here, you have four classes on white or purple days, and we don’t have that.”
One big difference between going to school in Seymour versus back home is that she doesn’t have to ride her bike to get there. In the Netherlands, bicycle transportation is very popular.
“When the weather is nice, I would ride a bike 45 minutes to get to school,” she said.
“We don’t get a lot of students riding their bikes nine miles to get to school around here,” Jennifer Miller said.
Although she is considered a junior at Seymour, Van der Laan already has graduated from high school back home and will begin attending university when she returns home.
Her placement with the Millers is perfect because she is planning to pursue a career in education.
“I want to be a teacher in a primary school,” Van der Laan said.
“That was one of the things that was good about her with our family,” Jennifer Miller said. “One of the things that stood out was that she wants to be an elementary teacher.”
Jennifer is a geography teacher at the Seymour Sixth Grade Center, while Scott teaches social studies at Seymour High School. The Millers also have a daughter, Katy, who is a senior at the high school, and two sons, Logan, who graduated from Purdue University this year, and the other, Michael, who is in law school.
Van der Laan is here through the International Student Exchange, one of several different foreign exchange programs that places students with volunteer host families.
Candidates in the International Student Exchange program must meet English language proficiency requirements before being placed and also must have their own medical insurance before leaving.
Exchange students have the option of how long they stay, either for a five-month semester or the full 10-month school year.
Jennifer Miller is the Hoosier Hills regional manager for the International Student Exchange and has been involved with the program since 2011. She helps find and coordinate families in the area to serve as hosts.
There are still students looking for host families this year, she said.
“The biggest thing is that families should look forward to having someone who can see what a typical American family is like and that busy host families are often the best host families,” she said. “I don’t think there are too many families that get much busier than ours.”
Counting Van der Laan, the Millers have served as a host family four out of the last five years. Their first student was from Germany.
“We transitioned her from another family to our family, and we’ve just hosted ever since,” Jennifer said. “We’ve made it work really well three times already and chose to do it a fourth time because it’s so important to realize that there is life outside of Jackson County.”
When a family doesn’t have the capabilities to visit another country, being a host family is a way to bring that country and culture to them, she said.
“There are a lot of kids that don’t get to leave Indiana or they don’t travel outside of the U.S., so it really opens up their minds that there are typical kids just like them in many other countries,” she said. “To be able to share our culture and learn about what life is like and for them to see what our life is like I think is really important.”
Scott Miller said he is amazed with the difference in language skills foreign exchange students exhibit when they arrive in Seymour compared to when they leave.
“The difference in them from start to finish is phenomenal,” he said.
He was skeptical of being a host family at first, he said.
“What I found out quickly and what surprised me the most was instead of adding to your daily activities or your weekly expectations, you’re actually adding a family member, which is really neat because you get real attached to them,” he said. “They’re just part of your family, and that’s awesome.”
But it also makes it very difficult at the end of five or 10 months when they leave.
“That’s the hardest part,” Jennifer said.
With social media, however, it’s really easy to stay in contact with students after they go back to their home countries, she said.
“You don’t lose that connection because you can talk very easily,” she said.
All three of the students the Millers have hosted have come back to visit since returning home, some more than once. And the Millers have traveled to Europe to visit with them and their families.
“The benefits of having an exchange student far outweigh any hectic changes of having an additional kid in the house,” Jennifer said.
Van der Laan is not a stranger to the United States. She vacationed with her family on the West Coast, visiting San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and before arriving in Indiana, she spent some time in New York City.
“It wasn’t a huge culture shock,” she said.
“Having been here (the U.S.) once before, she was already familiar with restaurants, shopping and having to deal with our money system,” Jennifer said. “But there is no question that these students who come here have to be incredibly brave and independent and trusting that these complete strangers that they are going to be living with are going to provide a good home environment for them to live in.”
To get ready for her move, Van der Laan said she spent a lot of time with her family and friends before coming, including a vacation to Italy with her parents.
“Goodbye was hard, but I’m back in 10 months,” she said.