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Students from different worlds share a common bond in Charles City

  • Sofia Rojas Lozano, left, and Nathalie Abel, two foreign exchange students completing their school year, strike a pose at Charles City High School. Lozano is from Colombia and Abel is from Germany. Press photo by Chris Rimrod

  • Nathalie Abel, left, and Sofia Rojas Lozano, two foreign exchange students completing their school year, strike a pose at Charles City High School. Lozano is from Colombia and Abel is from Germany. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

By Kelly Terpstra,

Sofia Rojas Lozano loves American macaroni and cheese.

Nathalie Abel enjoys watching Disney movies and playing soccer.

The foreign-exchange students are from different countries, but both found a temporary home away from home in Charles City.

Their new bond with Charles City High School and their host parents is coming to a close as summer vacation is just around the corner.

This week they’ll say goodbye to the United States and fly back to their respective nations – which are literally and figuratively a world apart.

Lozano lives in one of the most famous coffee producing regions in the world — Colombia, a country in northwestern South America that sits on the coast of the Caribbean Sea.

Abel hails from a suburb near Heidelberg, Germany, in the southwestern sector of a country that was once split in half by the Berlin Wall before the wall fell 30 years ago in 1989.

“My dad grew up in East Berlin. He went to college when the wall was torn down,” said Abel.

The students reminisced and giggled about their time in the Midwest.

“Of all the places we could have went, we came to Iowa to see the corn grow,” laughed Abel. “And we loved it.”

Charles City High School partners every year with host families to bring students from other countries who want to study, learn about the United States and share in all that is American.

Chris Rimrod, who works for the Charles City Press, is the host parent for Abel along with her husband Dan, the superintendent at the wastewater treatment plant here in town.

Chris Rimrod has been a local coordinator with the Charles City School District for the last five years in the foreign exchange program. She’s hosted two students, including Nathalie.

“It’s my side job,” said Rimrod. “They teach us so much.”

The Rimrods have helped create an environment that feels just like home for Abel.

“I feel like I’m a part of the family. I don’t feel like I’m a guest in that house,” said Abel. “You feel like you can always come back and stay in touch all your life.”

Lozano’s host family is Tom and Jen Wohlers from Charles City. Rimrod said Lozano is getting better at speaking English, something she struggles with at times.

“I want to learn English,” said Lozano.

Lozano ran track for the Comets in the 200 and 400 dash. She also played volleyball. She said she has been to America before, visiting Florida and staying in Miami.

The topography of Colombia — replete with Amazon rainforests and tropical grasslands — is quite different from America’s heartland, where farm ground often spans as far as the eye can see.

“Colombia has a lot of mountains,” said Lozano.

Some of Abel’s first impressions of America came from its cinema. She has seen many Disney movies and is a big fan of “High School Musical.”

“I was always a fan of the United States. You watch movies and see high school life and it kind of makes you want to, like, experience it,” said Abel.

Abel did want to set the record straight about one possible misconception about her native Germany.

“We do not put sauerkraut on our brats. I don’t know where that comes from. We have sauerkraut and we have brats, but they’re like different from what you get here,” laughed Abel.

Abel said everybody her age speaks English. She said she first started learning the language when she was around 10 years old.

“We don’t grow up bilingual. At home you don’t speak English at all,” she said.

Abel said at the school she attends in Germany they don’t play sports. She tried soccer for the first time in Charles City and took to it immediately.

“I’ve never played soccer before, but it was like the best thing in my life that I experienced,” said Abel.

Abel said most sports for youths or young adults in Germany are played and organized through clubs. She felt an instant camaraderie when she came to the states and witnessed how involved and immersed in sports her America counterparts were.

“I feel like school sports and like all those school activities – it just creates a spirit that we don’t have,” she said about her time in Charles City. “You just feel way more like you’re a group of people that belongs together.”

Lozano said her parents own a hardware store in Colombia that sells tools for machinery and constructing buildings. She said they do have something similar to American prom back in her country, but they dance differently than Americans do. They don’t free-form dance.

“We do the cha-cha,” laughed Lozano.

The agency that helped bring Charles City’s two foreign-exchange students to North America was Greenheart Exchange, a non-profit exchange program that has had more than 284,000 participants since it was founded in 1985.

“I help find the families that match the students,” said Rimrod. “When a family is interested in hosting, then I meet with them and talk with them and I learn about that family. Then I go on the database and I read through all these profiles.”

She said Greenheart requires the students to do community service while in the United States, helping out at various events and functions in the town where they reside.

“Without these families opening up their homes, these students wouldn’t ever get to have this experience,” Rimrod said.

She said each foreign exchange student this year at Charles City was enrolled as a junior. Abel came to live with the Rimrods last August and will still have two years left of school back in Germany.

Lozano graduated last December in Colombia and enrolled at Charles City High School in January. Lozano also plans to attend college.

Chris and Dan have a sixth-grade daughter, Mya, who just graduated from Immaculate Conception School. Chris said being a host parent gives her household the opportunity to build their family. The first year the Rimrods participated as a host family in the foreign exchange program in Charles City they took in a student from Italy.

“That’s why we started with the exchange program is because we tried to adopt another time and it just wasn’t able to happen,” said Rimrod. “Another thing I’ve always wanted to do is travel a lot to different countries. This was my way of learning about different countries and cultures.”

She said they’ll host students again next year for the 2019-2020 school year who are from Brazil and Poland. Chris said if anyone is interested in opening up their home for an exchange student or to study abroad they can contact her at 641-220-1798.

“It’s good for the school system to have that different culture,” Rimrod added.

Abel said one day she might want to attend Iowa State University in Ames, but said that she hasn’t made her mind up yet as to what her college choice might be. Abel was certain of one thing, that Charles City welcomed her with open arms.

“Charles City is probably one of the best places you could come to just because people come up to you the first day of school and they talk to you,” said Abel. “There wasn’t a single day in high school where I was sitting by myself, like from the very first day.”

About that coffee?

Lozano had this to say about American’s use of the bean that has energized and enraptured millions around the world.

“Here, coffee is bad,” Lozano smiled.