(Staff photos by Ken Ritchie)
(Staff photos by Ken Ritchie)
Their homes are thousands of miles away, but the three foreign exchange students at Madison Consolidated High School enjoy everything their new Madison friends have shared with them.

Pia Wenke, Malte Frenzel, and Ricardo Ruiz, all juniors, traveled from their home countries in August for a year as foreign exchange students in the United States. Each hoped to gain new experiences, new friends and learn about another country during their year abroad.

Wenke wanted to see the differences between the United States and her home country when she signed up to participate in the foreign exchange program.

"It is really different," Wenke, from Essen, Germany, said.

Even though she's from a town smaller than Madison, Essen is a suburb just minutes away from a larger city, she said. She noted that the public transportation that links her hometown to cities in Germany is lacking in the United States, especially in Madison.

"Here you really need a car," said Wenke, who depends on her host family and friends to get to where she needs to go.

Frenzel - from Hannover, Germany - wanted to learn the language he had been studying since the age of 8.

"I wanted to improve my English," he said.

Frenzel also wanted to meet new people and see the world other than the countries near his native Germany. He joined the high school's tennis team at the beginning of the school year, which made meeting classmates just a little easier.

"Playing tennis with the school team was really great," Frenzel said.

He has also met several friends through classes during the experience.

"I will miss some of them a lot," he said.

Even though Ruiz traveled to several countries near his home in Spain, he wanted the experience of traveling and studying in the United States.

"I just wanted to explore new places," Ruiz, from Valencia, Spain, said.

Each student experienced several opportunities to learn about their host city and have their own adventures while here. Even though all three stay with host families in Jefferson County, none of the foreign exchange students were familiar with Indiana. Wenke didn't even know where Madison was when she received her placement for her foreign exchange family.

"I Googled the place," she said. "When you think of America, you don't think of Madison."

Instead, the three students thought of the East Coast like New York City or the West Coast like Los Angeles or San Francisco.

While Wenke and Frenzel knew they were coming to Madison before leaving Germany, Ruiz thought he'd be spending his time on the West Coast. Ruiz was sponsored by a different program than Frenzel and Wenke.

But a turn of events brought Ruiz to Madison.

The family he was supposed to stay with decided not to go through with the assignment, and Ruiz was left in New York upon arrival while his foreign exchange sponsor found another location for him to stay.

"I didn't have a host family," Ruiz said. "It was crazy."

Wenke said she went through a few weeks of homesickness before adjusting to her surroundings and beginning the school year.

She was only supposed to stay for a semester before returning home to Germany, yet she decided to stay for the second semester in Madison.

"They always told me it was a great experience," Wenke said of other friends who participated in foreign exchange programs. "And I'm glad I did it."

While all of the exchange students will have experiences to share with their families and friends on their return home, Frenzel's exchange experience will continue even after he leaves Madison.

"My host brother is going back," he said.

Frenzel's host brother will travel to Germany a few weeks after Frenzel's return to spend three weeks in Hannover. The visit will allow Frenzel to show the differences he's noted between the two countries, such as the age differences in laws. The legal driving age is 18 in Germany while the legal drinking age is 16, he said - quite the opposite here.

And the language has been quite a difference as well, even though he's studied English for several years. Each student studied English in their home country, yet being immersed in an English-speaking society has been an adjustment.

"Sometimes I mix my words," Wenke said.

Recently, her host sister asked what the German translation was for a word. It took several minutes for her to remember the correct translations, she said.

Ruiz agreed that reversing back to his native Spanish might be a little difficult for a while when returning home.

"The first week (back home) is going to be so weird," Ruiz said.

All three students are finding their time in the United States quickly coming to a close, even though they're not sure they're ready for their journeys to end quite so soon. Wenke, Frenzel and Ruiz plan to return to their homes just weeks after the last day of school in Madison.

All three students are making the most of the time they have left and of their experiences in the United States. Each student has visited different locations during their stay, and they plan to travel during Spring break as well to see places they've heard about or want to explore.

"We should live as much as we can in those three months," Frenzel said.