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‘The camp was amazing’

FDSH students make connections in Kosovo

-Submitted photo
Fort Dodge High School students meet with the mayor of Gjakova, Kosovo, during their trip to the Fort Dodge sister city in July.

Four local high school students had the opportunity of a lifetime to visit Fort Dodge’s “sister city” of Gjakova, Kosovo, during the summer.

Fort Dodge Senior High sophomores Cayci Bidleman, Isabel Gruver and Caden Elliott, as well as St. Edmond High School freshman Emma Alstott, spent about two weeks in July in the European country of Kosovo, learning about other countries and cultures from high school students just like them. Bryce Presswood, resource police officer at FDSH, and Dr. Megan Srinivas, a physician at the Community Health Center of Fort Dodge, were adult chaperones for the trip.

The youth exchange program between Fort Dodge and Gjakova started in 2016, with 2019’s being the third trip to the Balkans.

The students organized an array of fundraisers to pay for the trip, and received sponsorship support from the Fort Dodge Community Foundation, the Ann Smeltzer Charitable Trust, Webster County 4-H, Iowa 4-H, Noon Kiwanis, Noon Rotary and USW Utility Group.

When the students arrived in Gjakova, they each went their separate ways to stay with their host families and get settled in. Being immersed in a new culture brought new surprises and new challenges for the teenagers.

-Submitted photo
The four Fort Dodge students, along with other students from the TOKA international camp, pose at the Newborn sign in Pristina, Kosovo.

Gruver was shocked by some of the culinary choices of their hosts.

“It may seem simple, but they eat ketchup on their pizza,” she said. “And they were absolutely flabbergasted to find out that we don’t also do that.”

Ketchup in Kosovo is a little different than ketchup in Iowa, they learned.

“The guy I stayed with, he poured ketchup on my plate and told me to try it,” Bidleman said. “It was super spicy!”

While in Gjakova, the students visited museums and went on tours throughout the city.

“We met the mayor and all the city officials,” said Bidleman.

The home stay was “definitely” Bidleman’s favorite, she said.

“We stayed with kids our age and their families. We got to see what life was like in Kosovo,” she said. “Just being immersed in a culture and talking to kids our age that are just like us when you’d think they were totally different. It’s just super cool to be with people and just spend a day in their shoes and do what they do.”

One of the biggest barriers the students faced while in Kosovo was being in a place where English isn’t always commonly spoken. Fortunately, many of the people they encountered were multi-lingual and did know English, but that wasn’t always the case. And even when someone else did speak English, there were still some things lost in translation.

“We use a lot of slang in our English,” Presswood said. “So if they give you options out there, like ‘Do you want to do this or do you want to do this?’ and you say ‘I don’t care,’ well to them, they take offense to that. They think you don’t care about whatever they’re talking about.”

Elliott learned that the roads in Kosovo are very different than the roads here in the Midwest.

“The driving was just insane,” he said. “Everyone passes each other and they honk when they pass each other. And everyone goes way over the speed limit.”

After a few days in Gjakova, the students left to attend the TOKA International Youth Leadership Camp in Kosovo.

There were about 40 students at the camp from many different countries — the United States, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, France and Palestine.

“The camp was amazing,” Alstott said. “It was basically a bunch of people our age and you don’t think you’d have that much in common, but you really do and it’s just all those similarities and differences and how you can work together and all contribute something different, that was amazing to me. I loved seeing their point of view, comparing it to ours and working together to solve problems.”

As the students representing America at the camp, they taught the other students how to make s’mores on a campfire. They also taught the others the dance to the song “Cotton-Eye Joe.”

The trip gave the students new perspectives on the world, other cultures and what other kids like them go through.

“The stories we heard from the Kosovo conflict, the personal family stories coming from those direct people, that made me really emotional and made me realize a lot about life,” Gruver said.

“Leaving that camp was so emotional,” Alstott said. “It was hard for everyone and a lot of the kids at the camp got so connected.”

Elliott’s favorite part of the whole trip was the people he met along the way.

“That was the coolest part, learning about everyone and everything,” he said. “Leaving was challenging.”

Even after the tears and the hugs shared among the students at the camp as they prepared to leave, they’ve stayed in touch using social media like Snapchat.

This is an experience the students will remember for the rest of their lives, they said.

“For me, the whole trip and getting to work with that different variety of people kind of showed me how I want to do that in the future,” Alstott said. “I’ve always wanted to work with plants and always wanted to learn another language and it kind of made me want to do that more. And now I want to work internationally.”

Gruver also wants to work internationally when she’s older.

“I think when I’m older I want to do Peace Corps at least once in my life,” she said. “Kosovo is a Peace Corps country, so maybe go back to Kosovo. It also helped me realize how grateful I should be for my life. That really awakened me. It made me a better person.”

Bidleman said it was “just so cool to go across the world to Europe.”

“It was amazing just learning about other people’s cultures and understanding what they’ve been through,” she said.

This was Presswood’s second time as a chaperone for the Kosovo youth exchange trip.

“I like to go and just sit back and watch these guys — you just take them out of their element and see them interact with other kids and how they get attached,” he said. “They realize that when you travel three or four thousand miles away, the kids they meet listen to the same music, eat kind of the same foods.”

At the same time, Presswood has been able to meet new and interesting people along the way as well.

“Last year I met with the principal from the high school and we still connect,” he said. “This year, I met with city leaders with our sister city and I’m still communicating with them. Not only do the kids make friends, but we do too.”

Srinivas enjoyed watching how the trip impacted the four high school students.

“It was cool having conversations on the way there and seeing what their perspectives on the world already were, and then seeing them as they evolved as they were there,” she said. “This is a great group of kids and they love to learn and they love to get to know people they were with. I was very impressed with how insightful they were.”

The students will present impact statements of what they learned on the trip and what it meant to them at the Fort Dodge City Council meeting in the coming weeks. The exact date has not yet been finalized.