Joseph student bound for Russia

June 12, 2013 10:35 am

 Omega Thiel, Joseph High’s valedictorian, wins scholarship for language immersion school in Russia

Students from around the world have ventured into Wallowa County on exchange programs — a wonderland of mountains, rivers and verdant pastures. In turn, some of the county’s youth travel to foreign lands to seek experiences outside of their native home.

In August, Omega Thiel of Joseph will make the Russian city of Kazan her home for the coming school year.

Thiel’s mother is from Culiacan, Sinaloa, in northwestern Mexico. When she was 9, she lived in Mexico with her mother’s family for a few months, which whetted her appetite to explore the world.

“It made me more receptive to different people and their backgrounds,” said Thiel.

Last year, American Field Service representatives made a presentation at the Joseph School, said Thiel.

“I expressed I’d always wanted to be an exchange student and asked them about scholarships.”

Thiel applied and was awarded one of 625 National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarships funded by the U.S. Department of State. These merit-based scholarships are for eligible high school students to learn less commonly taught languages like Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish in overseas immersion programs.

She said, “I am currently doing some pre-departure classes online, with books, and talking to people — it is so exciting I just dove into it.”

English class and the written word was her strong suit in school and she has a strong working knowledge of Spanish, so the language immersion program is a good fit.

Thiel said so far she’s discovered the Cyrillic alphabet, on which Russian is based,  is phonetic, making that part of the learning process manageable, but the structure of Russian grammar is a lot more complex than English. “Learning about the grammar is what I’m really interested in.”

Thiel said she has no experience with Russian culture and the people will be totally new to her. She is fascinated by their arts and folklore.

By late summer she will leave a county of 7,000 for Kazan, where she will have to read Russian well enough to use public transportation and find her way around a city of one million people.

This summer when not studying Russian, Thiel will be working a variety of jobs, including on the family’s Prairie Creek Farm.

Joseph School’s senior class president, Thiel said when she returns from Russia she is going to college to major in international relations.

As Thiel has distinguished herself among American foreign exchange students, Enterprise High School has, too, among the nation’s schools. The American Field Service recognized Enterprise High School this spring as one of Oregon’s top three participating schools.

The award said, “Enterprise High School first hosted American Field Service students during the 1998-1999 academic year. Since then, it has hosted multiple students each year. Their teaching staff strives to integrate these students into classroom discussions and encourage their involvement in extracurricular activities. This creates an ideal environment for intercultural exchange and helps enhance the intercultural competency of local and foreign students alike.”

Angie Lunde of Joseph has been the county’s Field Service facilitator for many years. When she was notified of the award, she said the Field Service wanted some anecdotal information about Enterprise High School, how the kids are welcome, and how they fit in there.

 “I would like to emphasize that all the schools in the county and La Grande have welcomed exchange students, including them actively in clubs, sports, music and the classroom. EHS has hosted more students consistently over the years, thus why they received this award.”

Lunde said she was a host sister to an exchange student as a high school student in Phoenix, Ore. In 1995, her daughter went on exchange to Sweden, and starting in 1997, Lunde and her husband, Nick, first hosted students in their home. In 1998 she started helping place students for the Field Service and continues to provide this service.

“It’s my contribution to peace in the world, something I feel like I can do to make a difference,” said Lunde.

Lunde said a lot of the students go out for sports, which she encourages, “so they can get the social aspect.”

As the exchange students are getting ready to go back home Lunde held a pre-
departure workshop at the end of the school year.

“They talked about how much they’ve changed, about leaving well, and new beginnings. Sometimes the hardest part is going home;
they don’t expect to have reverse culture shock,” said Lunde.

When she screens students to come to Wallowa County, she said she looks for kids who like to be outdoors and are open to new situations. She is currently recruiting host families for next year and already has four students placed.

“We can place as many as we have hosts,” said Lunde.

If you would like information on becoming a host family or have a child that is interested in the American Field Service exchange program, contact Lunde at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it