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Exchange student adjusts to life on the go

It's Christmas card time, and pictured among the members of Peggy and Mike Nickel's family is an unfamiliar face.

Fruzsina Kavas arrived in the United States in August with limited English skills and a wish to experience life in a typical Wisconsin family.

To say it's been a bit of a culture shock for Kavas this school year would be a serious understatement.

The senior at New Richmond High School is a native of Budapest, Hungary. She is living with her host family in rural Star Prairie.

Being away from her real family, which includes three brothers, was quite a challenge at first. But Kavas has adjusted well ever since.

"The first two or three months was very hard," she admits. "Now I don't want to go home."

"She feels like part of the family," Peggy added.

Kavas has been planning to visit the U.S. for years.

"In Hungary, it's a big deal," she said. "It's important to learn English if you want to get a good job. You have to know two other languages -- German and English."

Even though she had studied English for seven years prior to her exchange year, Kavas said she was not confident about her speaking skills.

"I was so shy, at first, I didn't want to talk," she said. "Now I think it's better."

While Hungary has a similar climate to Wisconsin, Kavas is quick to point out the many differences between rural Star Prairie and Budapest.

The key difference is the lack of public transportation. Where she is used to hopping on a bus to travel around the large city, here she must wait for rides or walk.

"I've always lived in a city, so this is different," she said.

The schedule at school is very different as well. In Hungary, classes are held on a staggered schedule with Kavas' school day ending at varying times.

In New Richmond, classes are held on a set schedule and the day ends at the same time each day.

She also had to adjust to having a long lunch break and a much longer school day.

The Nickel family has tried to learn from the cultural exchange as well. They all celebrated Santa Claus Day Dec. 6, which is the Hungarian Christmas event.

The night before, the family cleaned their shoes and left them outside the window for Santa to fill with candy.

Kavas is developing quite an additional list of the good and bad of American life. Among the list:


• Kavas said the student-teacher relationship is different here.

"I can talk to a teacher like my friend," she explained. "In Hungary, you can't do that."

• People are friendlier here. Even employees at a store smile and ask if they can help, she noted.

"We kind of take that for granted here," Peggy Nickel said.

• Hungarians don't celebrate such holidays as Halloween, Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Kavas especially enjoyed the recent family Thanksgiving gathering.

"Thanksgiving was cool," she said. "It was the first time I tried sweet potatoes. It was good, but that was enough." She shook her head at the thought of potatoes that are sweet.

The Nickel family had an unscheduled visitor over Thanksgiving as the New Richmond Fire Department arrived to put out a blaze in the stove.

Kavas was excited, and took pictures with her cellphone.

• She enjoyed a trip to Minneapolis recently where a local band was playing at a Christian nightclub. "That was awesome," she said.

• Kavas doesn't miss the big traffic jams that are frequent in Budapest.


• Food is more bland here than in Hungary, where more spices are used.

• The use of slang in the English language makes it difficult for Kavas to understand every conversation.

• Kavas isn't particularly impressed with the architecture of the region.

"Here, everything is a square," she said. "In Hungary we have beautiful buildings and old buildings."

• Americans waste too much water. Peggy Nickel said her exchange daughter is very good about wearing her clothes extra days and not wasting water.

"We could learn a few things from them," she said.

Nickel encouraged any local families to consider hosting an exchange student in the future. She said it's an education for everyone involved.

"I'm so lucky to have this family," Kavas said. "The first day I think I met 1,000 people. We always go, go, go."

Kavas' visit was coordinated by the Nacel International Exchange Program.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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