March 15, 2013

Global style

Foreign exchange students form YMCA team spanning continents

by Sarah Einselen

LOGANSPORT — Thailand, Finland, Italy, Germany, the U.S. and Norway. What do they have in common?

Volleyball at the Cass County Family YMCA.

On Tuesdays this winter, a group of high school students — more than half of them foreign exchange students — have been converging on the makeshift volleyball court set up in the YMCA’s gymnasium for games in the Y’s volleyball league.

The Bethel Temple team, captained by Bethel church members Jeff and Brenda Hamilton, came together in January after Jeff suggested that the Norwegian student he’s hosting, Espen Folkenstad, invite some friends to make a volleyball team.

Of the 10 people who joined the team, eight are foreign exchange students.

“It gives them an opportunity that they don’t have in their own country to try something new,” said Sharon Strasser, a host parent and director of the Logansport branch of foreign exchange organization Youth for Understanding.

“This gives them a chance to blend with all the other cultures when they’re just used to their own culture,” Strasser added.

Many of them, like Amita Thiraphanitkul, 17, had never played volleyball on a team, though they’ve participated informally in games.

Amita, from Thailand, said the rules for volleyball back home were more or less the same as the ones the team plays under in Logansport, with a few exceptions. But while the rules didn’t take much getting used to, venturing out into the cold to get to the YMCA for games did.

“We don’t have snow in Thailand,” she said, explaining that temperatures there generally hover around 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.

She plays on the team along with Krista Kyyrönen, a quiet 17-year-old from Finland. Krista speaks Finnish, Swedish, German and English.

And Veronica D’Agosta, 17, hails from Italy, where she has studied martial arts and kickboxing. She also speaks Italian and English and can understand French and Spanish because of their similarity to Italian, she said.

After she returns to Italy for graduation, she wants to return to the U.S. to attend medical school, possibly at the University of Chicago or Washington University-St. Louis, to become a plastic surgeon.

One member of the team, Paula Gehrling, 16, is part of a volleyball league back home in Germany.

Since sports in Germany are distinct from the school system — students join sports clubs and pay sports fees themselves — Gehrling and other German students typically participate in just one or two sports. While she plays volleyball in Germany, she joined Logansport High School’s track team this year, too.

With so many different countries represented, the volleyball players said they hadn’t run into any communication difficulties. On the contrary, they said, foreign exchange students often hang out together in school and outside of it, becoming close friends.

Volleyball has become part of that friendship for this group of students.

“It’s just fun,” said Veronica. “We’re spending time together.”

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at or 574-732-5151.

For more on this story and other local news, subscribe to The Pharos-Tribune eEdition, or our print edition