‘Best Year of Your Life’: Exchange students embrace local culture while living in Hancock County


HANCOCK COUNTY — It was mass chaos Wednesday night at Rob and Holly Siegel’s house in Fountaintown, where a trio of 16-year-old girls could be heard laughing as the smoke alarm rang out.

Once the cooking crisis was under control, the three girls — one of them the Siegels’ daughter, one of them from Spain and one from Germany — gathered around the table for dinner.

“We try to meet up for dinner every night if we can,” said Holly, who, along with her husband, opted to host two foreign exchange students for the 2022-23 school year.

Her stepdaughter, Ally Siegel, has developed a close friendship with the two teenage girls they took in — Aiala Oro from Spain and Annika “Annie” Fischer from Germany.

All three girls are juniors at Greenfield-Central High School.

The three teens often travel as a pack — going to the gym, hanging out at friends’ houses and attending every home football and basketball game. The Siegels have also taken them on a couple of road trips to visit Chicago and Florida, and are planning to travel to Dallas over Spring Break.

Holly said having all three girls under one roof has been a life-changing experience, teaching them each about one another’s cultures, and making the world seem not quite so big.

“We have totally enjoyed having them here. They blend in and fit in with our family perfectly,” she said.

The Siegels registered to become a host family through PAX — the Program of Academic Exchange — one of many organizations dedicated to placing foreign exchange students with host families in other countries.

“We’ve learned a lot about (the girls’) customs and the way they do things in Europe compared to how we do them here. It really opens the door to being able to embrace other cultures,” said Holly.

Both exchange students say they’re having a great time learning about American customs and acclimating to the culture.

Annie, who hails from the city of Jena near the direct center of Germany, said she’s feeling more confident communicating in English since first arriving in late July.

“My favorite thing about America is probably the sports clubs,” said Annie, who is on Greenfield-Central’s track team and ran cross country last fall.

Aiala — who is from Bilbao, a port city in northern Spain — played on the school’s volleyball team last semester and is playing tennis with Ally this spring.

While neither girl has been homesick, Annie said it felt odd not to be home for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Her host family, however, made it a point to honor their exchange students’ traditions at the holidays.

Throughout December they honored Annie’s German tradition of lighting a candle every Sunday leading up to Christmas.

On New Year’s Eve they honored Aiala’s Spanish tradition of The Twelve Grapes, which consists of eating a grape with each of the 12 chimes when the clock strikes midnight.

“You make a wish with each one, and if you get done by the end of the stroke of midnight your wishes are supposed to come true,” said Rob Siegel.

“We did that two different times. We did it at 6 p.m. local time as we Facetimed with her family who were celebrating New Year’s in Spain, and we did it at midnight here,” he said.

He and his wife opted to host one girl from Spain and another from Germany after Ally befriended two girls from those countries on a trip to Europe last summer.

Her friend from Germany has even made plans to stay in Greenfield a few weeks this spring so she can attend prom, which was canceled due to COVID when she stayed here as an exchange student.

Holly Siegel said it’s been great meeting other local exchange students from Greenfield-Central, including a girl from Spain who is a regular guest at their house.

“To see the similar interests all these teenagers have while being from different countries is really eye-opening,” she said, pointing out that “boys and music” seem to universally top the list.

While it took some time adjusting to sharing her home with two other teenage girls, Ally said the three of them have become incredibly close over the past five months.

“Every night, we go into one of our rooms and just talk until we go to bed. We never sit in our own rooms separately,” said Ally, who had become somewhat of an only child after her two older siblings left the nest.

She’s since developed an unshakeable bond with her two temporary “sisters” from overseas. “We’ve all gotten so close, I’m (already) sad for them to leave. I’d let them stay forever if they could,” she said Wednesday night as the smoke alarm rang out in the family’s kitchen.

Rob Seigel has gotten used to his house becoming more boisterous thanks to three chatty teenage girls.

While most days go smoothly, he remembers one day in particular the girls were arguing and he left his wife to intervene. “We did have a United Nations moment for that afternoon, and I stayed in the garage quite a bit. It’s never looked so clean,” he joked.

For the most part, the family has been having a blast getting to know one another and learning about each others’ traditions.

Rob Seigel was fascinated to watch the girls get acclimated to speaking English full time when they first arrived.

“At first you’d ask them a question and you could see their eyes shift as they’d translate what you’re saying into their native tongue, then translate it to English to come out with the answer. I found that very interesting,” he said.

“We joke around and use a lot of pop culture references, which we have to explain to each other, but we’ve had a great time learning about each other’s customs.”

Seigel encourages other families to consider hosting exchange students, but reminds them it’s a long-term commitment.

“It’s not like you meet someone and have to tolerate them for an hour or two. You’re committing to a relationship,” he said.

Aiala encourages both families and students to consider taking part in a foreign exchange program.

“It’s a really good way to get to know yourself and learn a lot of things in another country, another culture,” said the Spanish teen.

“If you are lucky and have a really good family and a good exchange student, that’s the best year of your life. For real.”