Mongolian foreign exchange student Misheel Baasansuren is more than halfway into her year at Detroit Lakes High School, and she says the experience is making her a better, braver person.
“I feel like I’ve gained a lot more confidence since I’ve come here,” she told the Tribune on Thursday. “I’ve broken out of my shell and I have done things that I would never have done before.”
She joined the school’s speech club, for example — an activity that pushes her out of her comfort zone. Initially shy about getting up in front of a crowd, Baasansuren said she’s becoming more at ease with it now: “I’m getting better at it.”
She’s also learned how to ride a bicycle. The 17-year-old had never ridden a bike until she arrived at the home of her local host parents, Hondo and Angie Lehmann, in mid-August. The Lehmanns busted out one of their spare bikes and some training wheels for Baasansuren to practice with, and she caught on quick. In no time at all, she was biking right alongside them down the trails at Itasca State Park.
Intent on seeing and doing as many new things as possible while she’s here, Baasansuren has joined the school swim team, gone downhill skiing, and plans to play another school sport this spring. She’s gotten involved in academic and service clubs, too, including Key Club, TARGET club and Philanthropy and Youth, or PaY.
She’s traveled up Minnesota’s North Shore to see the countryside there, and has visited the state Capitol and Mall of America. She goes to a lot of movies, and she and Angie Lehmann have been making glass art together. She even job shadowed a local hydrologist for a day, to learn more about irrigation systems and groundwater levels.
Learning, growing, becoming a more well-rounded person — those are all goals that Baasansuren hopes to achieve during her year in Detroit Lakes. She also hopes to apply a few of the things she’s learning here to her altruistic efforts back home, to do something beneficial for Mongolia.
Mongolia is a country in East Asia, bordered by China and Russia, that's known for its vast expanses of land and endless blue skies. Baasansuren was born and raised in Mongolia's third-largest city, Erdenet, population 100,000.
“It’s really pretty land,” she said of her home country, and the weather is pretty similar to Minnesota’s.
The youngest in her family, Baasansuren has her mom and dad, two older sisters, two brothers-in-law, and a niece and nephew back home who are all missing her right now. She misses them, too, she said, but they have iPhones and keep in touch. They were a big source of support and encouragement for her as she went through the process of trying to become a foreign exchange student.
That process was intense. She applied three times to get into the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) scholarship program before finally being accepted. The program is merit-based and competitive; the application process has several stages, and in the end only about one in 50 students who apply are selected.
When that finally happened for her, “I was excited,” she said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to come to America, and I wouldn’t even have to pay for it, because I’ve earned it.”
Funded by the U.S. Department of State, the FLEX program aims to develop and improve relations between U.S. and international students. The program only recently became available in Mongolia, and Baasansuren said she’s been told she’s the first exchange student from Mongolia to study at Detroit Lakes High School.
While she’s enjoying it here, it was actually an organization that works with the FLEX program, called ASSE International Student Exchange Programs, that selected Detroit Lakes for Baasansuren. ASSE chooses schools and communities based on safety, size and availability of host families, she said. They don’t want to place kids anywhere they’re likely to feel overwhelmed or unsafe.
That hasn’t been a problem for Baasansuren, who said she was pleasantly surprised to find out ‘Minnesota Nice’ is a real thing. The people here have been friendly to her, she said. She’s made friends, and her host parents have been fun and helpful.
“We’re having a great time with her at our house,” Angie Lehmann said. “She’s a great kid. She’s super enthusiastic about sharing stories about her country and her family. She talks a lot about Mongolia, which is kind of fun.”
She’s told them, for example, about how the school day in Mongolia starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 12:30 p.m. It’s structured much differently than schools here: she studied 19 school subjects last year, and followed a different class schedule for each of the five days of the school week.
Because she took a "year off" to study abroad in the U.S., Baasansuren will have one more year of school to finish after she returns to Mongolia. After that, she might pursue a career in sociology or linguistics. She loves the study of languages, and speaks three of them herself — English, German, and her native tongue, Mongolian.
Want to be a host family?
Hondo and Angie Lehmann love learning about other cultures by hosting international exchange students, Angie said. Baasansuren is the sixth exchange student they’ve hosted.
“We both really love how much it impacts our life, by just getting a different perspective… It really opens up and broadens our horizons, and we feel so enriched from the experience of hosting,” she said.
For more information about hosting an exchange student, visit asse.com.