12 Dutch students attend El Capitan High School

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 20, 2014 

A dozen high school students from the Netherlands have spent this week at Merced’s El Capitan High School, discovering much common ground as well as differences between the two cultures. This is the fifth year students from Stedelijk Dalton Lyceum in Dordrecht have visited a local campus.

“People are very kind; they want to show us everything,” Danny Veth, 16, said. “Our lifestyle is starting to become similar to America. Our school is older and a lot smaller, one-fourth of the size of this school.”

Dutch residents eat more healthy fare and Veth is amazed at the number of fast-food restaurants here.

Elma de Hoon, founder of the Dutch/American Fulbright Project and one of two teachers accompanying the students here, said the relationships developed here will be close and long-lasting. She has been here for each of the four previous visits, which were at Golden Valley High School, where El Capitan English teacher Tina Spurlock previously taught.

De Hoon said many of the previous exchange participants ask her if a Dutch-American reunion is possible. Through email and social media, Merced students and their guests from 7,000 miles away stay in frequent contact. A number of summer visits here or abroad have taken place.

Francois de Gier, 17, said bullying never takes place at his school. He said El Capitan students have been open and nice, perhaps because they are foreigners.

De Gier said he has noticed American television commercials are “really fake.”

“America is really big; the food is big, everything is,” de Gier said. Bonds were formed right away when his host family met him at the airport. They were singing songs in the car on the way back to Merced.

Most of the Dutch students are fluent in English and also speak German or French. They also take classes in Latin and Greek.

Larissa Colle, 16, said it takes longer to make friends at home.

“People are really nice to me,” Colle said. “I already feel at home here. They are friendly and open and that’s not necessarily that way at home. We have got a lot of American influences in the Netherlands.”

Jasper Ketelaar, 16, has spoken English since he was 7 years old. While he has traveled mostly in Europe, this is his first visit to the United States.

“The stores are so much bigger,” Ketelaar said, “than the ones in our city. The distance between home and school is a lot bigger here.” Most students ride bicycles to school.

Jan Van den Dungen is a biology and geography teacher in Dordrecht, a city of 130,000 people. He said the Dutch students are likely to attend universities when they graduate. A teacher for 19 years, he was brought up speaking Dutch and German and also speaks Polish along with English.

“The hospitality is amazing,” Van den Dungen said. “It’s unheard of (in the Netherlands) to offer a guest their own bathroom and bedroom. There are many, many small differences. Our values are similar and that’s very nice.”

Den Dungen was able to fulfill a childhood dream when his host family took him to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. He was amazed that El Capitan is much better equipped than schools at home and it’s unheard of for Dutch schools to get donations from the private sector, such as is happening with auto mechanics classes here.

Luna Van Maaren, 18, is most interested in biology and geography classes. He said he was surrounded by El Capitan students asking many questions and suspects they don’t know much about his home country.

Marike Wiersma, 16, said everything is big in Merced. Classroom buildings are big and far apart, while conditions in the Netherlands are more cramped. She said the El Capitan students’ Chromebooks are much better than carrying around textbooks.

Pim Arts, 17, said school rules in America are much stricter than home. However, he said Americans are very open whereas at home conversations may not occur until after a couple months and friendships take time to develop.

Michelle Remijn, 17, wants to stay here. She said Americans are prone to exaggerate things. She enjoyed visiting Yosemite and said mountains are nine to 12 hours away from home.

Rosanne Bartels, 17, has spoken English for five years. She also speaks German, French and Dutch. At home the school’s computer lab has three or four computers. Sports are not connected to school.

At home there are no guns and it’s very hard to get a weapon in the Netherlands, she said.

Robrecht Haex said Americans are reluctant to discuss religion or politics. He was taken aback at first by the extent of security measures at El Capitan High School.

“I expected someone to do something,” Haex said. “People are very nice to us. The students were excited to see us and we get a lot of attention. Yosemite was very beautiful.”

Haex jokingly said he received several wedding proposals but declined them because he has better things to do. He observed many American students are motivated to do well in school to attend the best universities.

De Hoon teaches classical Latin and Greek classes. She said our society is based on Roman society and many languages, English included, derive words from Latin. Learning Latin strengthens one’s logical thinking, she said.

Joram van der Velden, 16, speaks Dutch, English and a little bit of German and French. Back home, secondary school is much different with three types of education.

“People are really enthusiastic and really kind,” van der Velden said. “I love the scenery here. Yosemite was great; it was mind-blowing.”

Students, who arrived here Saturday, were leaving today for San Francisco and Sunday for home, Spurlock said. This was the first time the Dutch students were exposed to a 1:1 computer learning environment.

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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