Finding where you belong can be a difficult process. There might be many ups and downs along the way. But when you settle down and know you’re where you are supposed to be, there is a weight taken off your shoulders. As a foreign exchange student from France, Eléonore Escallier has found where she belongs in America: with Eric, Christine, and Noah Johnson in Champlin.
Two years ago, a friend of Escallier’s from France spent a year in Nebraska as a foreign exchange student, which first introduced to her the possibility of living and going to school overseas.
“I didn’t know it was possible to be an exchange student,” Escallier said.
She reached out to ISPA, a French agency that pairs students with host families in the United States, and they got in touch with Ayusa, an American agency. So Escallier, a native of Saint Étienne, France, was put on a waiting list, patiently biding her time until a family chose to be her host family.
In April, Escallier received word that she had been chosen. However, the high school that she would be paired with said their foreign exchange student program was already full, so she was put back on the waiting list.
Every day since being put back on the list, Escallier checked the list to see if she had been chosen by a family. One morning in early July, her name was off the list. “Oh my god!” she exclaimed.
On July 8, Escallier got a call from an unknown number. The caller said she was with ISPA and said “do you know why I’m calling you?” Escallier said, “Yes, I know!” The agent told her that a family from Champlin had chosen to be her host family. Escallier’s 10-year-old sister recorded her reaction to the call, which showed Escallier getting visibly emotional when hearing the amazing news. Escallier said before the call, she felt sick due to stress, and after getting the call, “I was not sick anymore,” she said.
Of all the places she could go, Minnesota was the state. So what did Escallier know of Minnesota from living in France? Little House on the Prairie. Her mom read all the books to her when she was younger, and two years ago, her sister and herself watched the TV shows.
On the other end of the connection, Eric and Christine Johnson had wanted to be a foreign exchange host family for nearly a decade. Every year, Champlin Park High School takes only five foreign exchange students into their program. By the time the Johnsons were approved as a host family in July, there were only two spots left.
After scrambling around the Fourth of July holiday to finalize their application, the Johnsons got word from Ayusa community representative Jessa Preimesberger that they would be hosting a 17-year-old girl from Saint Etienne, France named Eléonore.
Preimesberger, who has worked with Ayusa for less than a year, is no stranger to being involved with foreign exchange students. Her grandparents hosted a foreign exchange student from Norway in the 1970s, and to this day, Preimesberger is still friends with her and her daughter. Preimesberger’s grandparents even went to Norway to visit the student, and she comes to the United States every five or ten years. “I was kind of born into it,” Preimesberger said.
Now, she has the opportunity to pair students up with host families, which she is one herself. “It is really fun to be able to pair up students with families,” she said. Because of COVID-19, many students who were planning on living abroad in 2020 deferred to 2021, which resulted in double the normal amount of foreign exchange students this year.
Escallier, who is one of 10 students Preimesberger helped connect with host families, reached out to the Johnsons with an email, and then they talked over WhatsApp. “Thank you so, so much for choosing me,” Escallier said in her email. “I can’t wait to come and spend my exchange year with you.”
“We fell in love with her right away,” Christine said.
LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM
Escallier said that everyone living in Europe has a dream to one day go to the United States. “Every European wants to go to America,” she said. “I know a lot of people want to come here because of the movies, Hollywood. It is a big thing in Europe.”
She was no different. Along with being closer to where her favorite shows and movies are filmed like “Stranger Things” and “Mean Girls,” Escallier was excited to experience what high school life was like in the United States.
Back in France, high school is a lot like how American universities operate. A normal school day runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., except on Wednesday, which is a shortened day. Students have a two-hour lunch break and roughly three hours worth of breaks during the day. Oftentimes, Escallier would go home for lunch and then come back for her afternoon courses.
Along with college-like schedules, the class difficulty rivals that of universities. “It is very difficult to get good grades,” Escallier said. “Teachers always find something wrong.” If she can get a 70% on her final exams, Escallier is thrilled. Back when her mom was in grade school, if students failed their final exams, they had to retake the entire year of school. And her mom, who did every assignment during the year, had text anxiety and ended up failing, resulting in another year of schooling and no graduation.
Thankfully, it is not as strict in French school nowadays, but the contrast was evident for Escallier as soon as she stepped foot into a Champlin Park classroom. At Champlin Park High School, she is feeling as if her stress level has dropped like the Tower of Terror ride. Escallier has 100% in her honors math class and is loving her new painting course.
“The day goes by very quick,” she said. “Eleonore loves being home at 2:30,” Christine said.
Back home in France, when she is not studying or in class, Escallier spends time in boxing, karate, and dance lessons, which she has been doing for 11 years. With no team sports at the high school level in France, Escallier had no idea cheerleading was a possible activity during her schooling. So when she was still living in France, she got in touch with girls on the Champlin Park cheerleading team, as Christine touched base with the cheerleading coach.
“She told me it was her American dream,” Christine said. Dream accomplished. She is now a part of the Rebels’ cheerleading squad. “It’s so fun. We don’t have cheerleaders back at my high school in France,” Escallier said.
It isn’t always easy being a new student in a new school. In France, Escallier said if you were not a part of a certain friend group, the kids would go out of their way to be mean to you. “If someone doesn’t like you, you will know,” she said. “Here, everybody is nice with everybody. Even if I’m not their friend, I will not outwardly show him or her.”
So far, she said she has made many friends in her classes and activities.
BIGGER IS BETTER?
What stood out to Escallier immediately about the United States was the size of everything. “Everything is bigger here,” she said. From the roads to the department stores, homes, and high schools (her French high school’s enrollment of 800 is four times less than Champlin Park’s 3,200 kids), she thinks France is dwarfed in a lot of areas.
But not food. Even though 20 chicken nuggets for five dollars is dirt cheap (compared to the same quantity for 10 Euros in France), the quality of food is no comparison for Escallier. She will often make the Johnsons homemade crepes, baguettes, and croissants, and even pasta soup, which is essentially boiled noodles in warm milk. “We want her to experience America, and she wants us to experience France,” Eric said.
Along with helping cook the meals, Escallier has been a big help in cleaning up as well. “She is terribly helpful,” Christine said. “She is the first person to stand up from the table and clear the dishes and unload the dishwasher when it’s clean…the things we have to ask our 14-year old [son Noah] to do.”
However, there have been challenges along the way for both Escallier and the Johnsons, most notably in communication and learning differences in cultures. “She is really interested in us knowing about France,” Christine said.
One day in the first couple of weeks, they had a conflict because Escallier kept saying what things would be like in France. “Finally I said to her,” Christine said, ‘Why do you keep talking about that? If you would want to be in France, why did you come here?” Escallier responded, “Christine, you don’t understand. Everyone in France wants to come to America. It’s the great American dream.’”
Conflicts and challenges may arise, but they are committed to staying united together, like a family.
LOVE OF A FAMILY
Eric and Christine’s son Noah is their only child, but recently he has had to share his home with someone else for the first time. As soon as the Johnsons picked up Eleonore from the airport, Noah and Escallier started talking in the backseat with each other. The two also spend many hours playing video games at home, just another way that new acquaintances have quickly become close friends. “We increased our family by 25%,” Christine likes to say.
The Johnsons have also shown Escallier, or ‘Eleo’ as they call her for short, all the Minnesota must-sees, including the Mall of America, visiting the north shore on a family vacation, and seeing the world’s largest candy store in Jordan. But some things are still on the bucket list, like taking her on a frozen lake, and having a fish fry in the winter. “It is fun to be able to show Eleo some of the stuff that is not in France,” Noah said.
And then there’s the cold. The bitter, winter cold. Christine said Escallier has felt cold every day since she arrived, especially as the seasons turn from summer into fall, and fall into winter. But the Johnsons remind her that she hasn’t experienced the true Minnesota cold just yet.
“She has no idea,” Eric said. “There will be lessons learned.”
Escallier’s logic towards the cold, however, is solid. “I will only be cold if I stay outside,” she said. Her four-minute walk to school every day might feel like it takes longer the colder it gets, but she is experiencing Minnesota in its truest form.
A year can fly by in the blink of an eye. Escallier will eventually go back to her home country of France when the school year is over and finish her senior year of French schooling before embarking on the next step of life’s journey. But neither she nor the Johnsons will ever forget the bond they have created. A bond as strong as family.
“I feel so lucky to have been chosen [by the Johnsons],” Escallier said.
“[Eleo] will always have a home with us,” Christine said. “We want her to be a part of our family for the rest of our lives.”
“I think it would be nice to be connected with Eleo for a while,” Noah said. “I want to be in contact with Eleo for a long time.”
“Everybody who is even considering hosting an exchange student, there is no question this is one of the best things we’ve ever done,” Eric said. “Just do it. Make that leap. Open your home to somebody. That benefit will be returned to you ten-fold. I never knew that I could have somebody become part of our family in such a short amount of time. And here we are. I love her like a daughter and I always will.”
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