For first-time visitors, there are numerous ways to experience the Wood River Valley. One of the most unique ways to get to know the area is through a high school foreign exchange program.
For foreign exchange students, their time spent in the Valley is not guided by a brochure or dictated by the best weekend travel-package available. They do not experience the Valley as tourists or visitors, but instead are transplanted into the local lifestyle. They attend local schools and spend time with families and students that know all the charms the region has to offer, not just the advertised ones. International students are not just temporary observers, but instead are instantly a part of the community and are welcomed in as new family members and friends.
Within the Valley, a variety of programs exist for international exchange. Both the Hailey and Ketchum Rotary clubs regularly bring in students for the school year. The American Field Service (AFS) has a strong, local volunteer-base that also hosts and cares for a handful of exchange students annually. And on occasion, students travel from Tegernsee, Germany, to the Valley as part of a sister-city program the two cities have maintained for more than 30 years. Each year students from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, also come on exchange for two weeks through a program David Holmes, head of The Community School, established.
Regardless of where the students travel from or which program they arrive through, it is undeniable that the Valley has a unique experience to offer international students—and that they, in turn, have a great deal to offer the community.
In both the AFS and Rotary exchanges the students do not choose where they are sent and as Amy McGraw, AFS volunteer of 15 years, said, many are initially disappointed when they are told they are going to Idaho. However, once they arrive and see the natural beauty and the active lifestyles of the community they begin, she said, to warm up to the area instantly. She said almost every student she has known through AFS has not wanted to leave at the end of their term.
Scott and Anne Mason, host parents to 11 exchange students over the years, both said the proximity the Valley provides to the outdoors and the amount of activities students can do in such a small town often awes the students.
and the people do so much stuff here.
They go mountain bike and hike and everything.
It’s very different living in Stockholm in the city
and then coming here to the mountains.”—Martin Gottlander
“The wilderness is so accessible. It’s literally right out our door, and I don’t think most European kids, or kids from cities, experience that,” Anne Mason said.
The Masons then continued to contrast the mountain-life experiences students get while also receiving city-level cultural ones through programs and performances brought in by organizations such as the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony.
The ski culture of the Valley also offers a new experience for many international students. For some, it offers the first chance to ever ski, snowboard or even just play in the snow. And for students who are already well acquainted with snow sports, the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) has occasionally waived students’ tuitions, allowing them to experience the team atmosphere and see more of the country and culture through competitions.
Martin Gottlander, an 18-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden, who is on exchange this year, said he was very excited to come to the Valley to ski.
“I wanted to come to the mountains and ski a lot, so I was really happy to come to Sun Valley,” Gottlander said. “My dad had heard about this place and how great the skiing was, so I was excited to come.”
And even though Gottlander’s initial interest in the Valley was centered on Bald Mountain, he said that he enjoys almost everything about the Valley and the school so far.
“I think it's great here,” he said. “There’s sun everyday, and the people do so much stuff here. They go mountain bike and hike and everything. It’s very different living in Stockholm in the city and then coming here to the mountains…I also like that the teachers have friendships with their students. I think that contributes to the overall learning at the school.”
Not only does the Valley offer students a one-of-a-kind high-culture-in-a-small-town experience, but also hosting international students and integrating them into the school system offers the Valley benefits in return.
“I think it is an invaluable experience to have someone else in your home: first, to see that they live differently, and second, to see that you can live differently,” Scott Mason said.
The Masons said raising their children with international students in the house not only broadened their worldviews, but also helped them remember why they initially loved living in the area.
“One of my favorite parts has always been the excitement of seeing America through a foreigner’s eyes,” Anne Mason said.
McGraw said the international students also add to the learning atmosphere in school by bringing different perspectives and life experiences to the table.
Overall the exchange programs in the Valley can be credited for opening foreign students’ eyes to the beauty of Idaho and for helping hosts and community members learn new cultures and also remember the things they loved about their own.