Homecoming: Exchange student returns to Penn Township after 36 years

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When Ada Drescher first came to western Pennsylvania 36 years ago as a high school exchange student from Croatia, her host family met her at the airport holding a sign saying “Welcome Ada”.

The same sign greeted Drescher, now 54, two weeks ago when she returned to the area to visit former hosts Maria and Vince Neal of Penn Township.

“(Vince) opened his garage door, which has always been the main way into the house,” Drescher said. “The door to the house had a sign that said ‘Welcome Ada,’ and I thought, ‘Oh dad, you put it up to make me feel welcome!’ And he said, ‘No, I never took it off.’ He installed it back in the 80s, and it’s still there in the garage.

Four decades have passed since Drescher’s first visit to the United States and a lot has changed, she admits. Traffic, development, prices and world politics are different than they were in 1986.

What hasn’t changed is Drescher’s close bond with the Neals, whom she calls “Mom” and “Dad” like family as they swap stories about the past.

“It seems like 36 years haven’t even passed,” Maria said. “We were in touch all the time. If something happened, say his son was getting married, we would hear about it. Our daughter now lives in Switzerland, and our son is in Australia, and she knows all about it.

“My own aunts and uncles aren’t as close as the two of them, although I had been here for, I think it was 11 months,” Drescher said. “We were all lucky, I know a lot of (exchange families) don’t keep in touch with the families.”

Drescher first spent a year as a student at Penn-Trafford High School on an AFS exchange program. The Neals’ daughter, who was in high school at the time, gave the family the idea to serve as hosts.

“Probably within 15 minutes Ada and I bonded,” Vince said. “We bonded instantly, at the airport, before she was even in the house, and we still are.”

Drescher agreed.

“I was lucky, it was like a match made in heaven,” she said.

Exchange of experience

Drescher took classes with students at Penn Trafford High School, made friends, and spent time at western Pennsylvania attractions such as Seven Springs Mountain Resort. She found herself surprised by certain aspects of American culture.

“You have to go to school, you take the bus – we don’t have that. The yellow buses, the school buses, just come from the movies, and it was like, ‘OK, so this is real!’ ”

During her studies, Drescher tried her hand at volleyball, as she first played handball and ran track and field in Croatia. She also became involved in archery, a hobby she passed on to her own children.

AFS-USA celebrates its 75th anniversary this academic year. Since the advent of the covid pandemic, participation in the AFS intercultural program has slowed somewhat, with 5,678 students reported participating in global study abroad programs in 2021 compared to 11,863 in 2019, according to annual reports. organisation.

During the year Drescher stayed with the Neals, a handful of other exchange students were matched with families in the area, Maria said. Their home became something of a hub for exchange students, and Drescher met, befriended, and traveled with students from all over the world.

“We got to meet all these international students from all these different countries,” Maria said.

Community connection

Drescher has kept in regular contact with the Neals since that first trip, and the two attended her wedding in 1990. She still texts and follows the Neals on social media. They have visited her several times since in Europe, but this year is the first time she has returned to the United States, Drescher said.

“I think my perspective has changed, because I’m 54 and I’ve lived in different countries,” she added. “Everything was new. Nothing new these days. It was my first time here. »

She remains pleasantly surprised by the community ties in Penn Township, even though the area has grown and changed.

“I feel like the community is still very tight-knit. The neighbor came and she remembered me that year, and it’s still the same neighbors,” Drescher said. “I feel like it’s even closer than it was.”

Drescher is leaving this week to continue his visit to different parts of the United States and plans to visit Niagara Falls with a friend. But she hopes to return to visit the Neals, potentially with the rest of her family.

“I would love to make it an annual thing,” Drescher said. “I have my visa for two years, so they are not safe next year.”

Julia Maruca is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Julia at [email protected]

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