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North High junior wins full scholarship to study in Germany

Haleigh_Balentine Parkway North High junior Haleigh Balentine has been receiving voice mail messages in German from her grandfather lately.

The voice messages began in mid-May, when Haleigh learned she had received a full scholarship to attend school in Germany next school year and live with a host family.

As a way of preparing her for the sojourn, Haleigh’s grandfather peppered her with voice mail messages. He lives in St. Louis and speaks several languages.

Haleigh is  one of seven  St. Louis students to receive the full scholarship award from Youth for Understanding (YFU).

The scholarship includes transportation, meals, schooling, and a trip to a historic site in Germany.

 “I’m really excited, but I’m nervous, too,” says Haleigh, 16, who leaves for Frankfurt, Germany, this week, where she’ll spend a month in orientation with her first host family, before moving on to her permanent host family in Willingen, a town of 6,000 northwest of Frankfurt.

“I don’t have any expectations because I don’t want to ruin the experience by setting predefined goals,” she says. “I tend to be an ‘awkward magnet.’ I attract awkward moments. My biggest hope is that no awkward things happen.”

That could be a challenge, she laughs, considering that her host family has signed her up for ski school and horseback riding, two new activities for her. Her teacher for both, at least initially, will be her permanent host family’s daughter, age 10.

Haleigh won the full scholarship based partially on her considerable writing ability—and her enthusiasm for learning a new culture. “I’m really interested in World War II, and I want to go to Nuremberg,” she says. “I think Hitler’s rise to power is interesting because he was such a cunning and evil person, and it was so hard to bring him down.”

Haleigh will attend a combination elementary and high school, for fifth- grade to senior-level students, and all of her classes will be in German.  Even though she hasn’t taken German since middle school, the German classes don’t give her pause. “I’m good at picking up language,” she explains.  In that regard, she’s like her grandfather, who will likely be on the receiving end of German voice mail messages upon Haleigh’s return.

A number of Parkway people helped Haleigh with the YFU scholarship process. They are: Suzanne Greenwalt, Haleigh’s Northeast Middle School German teacher, who encouraged Haleigh to apply; North High Social Studies Teacher Amy Thornhill, who wrote a recommendation letter; and Stephen Rutherford, a Parkway parent and YFU volunteer who interviewed Haleigh.

Rutherford, who has children at Highcroft Ridge and Central Middle, was a high school exchange student with YFU 25 years ago. He studied in Japan for a year and says the experience changed his life. In college, he majored in international studies. After graduating, he headed back to Japan, to live for eight more years. There, in a Tokyo Italian restaurant, he met a Japanese woman who would later become his wife.

 “My high school exchange experience taught me to look at my own country from the outside and allowed me to see different ways of doing things,” he says. “It broadened my perspective.”

Today, he wants to offer the same global perspective to his own children and Parkway students. His goal is to get more U.S. students immersed in international exchanges.

YFU is currently looking for volunteer host families for exchange students. The deadline is Aug. 31, 2011. Rutherford also says there are more scholarship opportunities for Parkway students who want to participate in the exchange program next year. For more information, please contact him at (636) 236-8649.