LAKE CITY — When Diede Smit found out she would be coming to Michigan from her native Holland for the 2018-19 school year, she admits that she had to look it up on the map.
“I never heard of Michigan before,‘ Diede, 16, said with a laugh in the spacious, comfortable home of her host family, Kevin and Kristin Kent of Lake City.
“I had to look it up on the map.‘
When she realized she would be coming to Northern Michigan, she also realized she would likely be experiencing a cold winter.
Probably with plenty of snow.
And she was right about that.
“I was excited about the snow for the first two weeks and then I got over it pretty quickly,‘ she said, chuckling again and shaking her head.
“The winter was long but the school year’s been great.‘
‘Nervous and excited’
Diede is from Utrecht, a good-sized city of about 350,000 residents located not far from Amsterdam. Her parents Richard and Jose Smit and brother Niek supported her adventurous idea of going to America for one school year through the international “Youth for Understanding‘ program and so Diede put in her application last year and waited.
“I wanted to experience something different,‘ she explained.
She received an email just before a soccer match confirming her placement with the Kent family in a place called Michigan that she had never heard of.
“I was so nervous and excited I could hardly concentrate on the soccer game,‘ she said.
“I couldn’t wait to get back home so I could look up where I was going.‘
When she located Michigan on the map, she thought she’d enjoy being able to experience snow, which is something rare where she lives in Holland, and she was happy to be going to a smaller community like Lake City.
“I knew it would be different than living in the city,‘ she said, “and I was curious to see what it would be like.‘
A key for life
Kevin and Kristin Kent are veterans when it comes to hosting exchange students through Youth for Understanding. Diede is the fourth young lady from overseas they have welcomed into their home and without exception, it has been an enriching experience for all involved.
“When they first arrive, we give them a key to the home and we tell them it’s a key they have for life,‘ said Kevin, a longtime middle school math teacher and football coach for Lake City.
“They’re always welcome here. They know that if they ever need to get away, our home is always open to them.‘
Kristin, an elementary physical education teacher at Manton who hails from Suttons Bay, was exposed to Youth for Understanding at a young age through her mom, who grew up with exchange students in her home and developed vibrant relationships that continue to this day. So it was natural for Kristin and Kevin to gravitate toward the same program when they discussed hosting exchange students.
“We viewed it as growing our family,‘ Kristin said. “It was a way of sharing our life with others and giving them a second home. We always hope they want to come back.‘
Diede admitted to being nervous when she first arrived at the Traverse City airport in mid-August. She had been in contact with the Kents already and felt welcome to come to their home, but she wondered about adapting to new surroundings and a different culture and speaking English, even though she received lessons from a young age in Holland and was proficient at the language.
“It was a lot of changes at once,‘ she said.
After she arrived, everything seemed bigger than she expected. She was amazed when she went to the Target store in Cadillac with Kristin and saw so many aisles filled with various goods, and she was really amazed when she went to Tasty Treat in downtown Lake City with the Kents a little later and ordered a small Blizzard and saw just how different her idea of “small‘ was compared to Tasty Treat.
Diede acknowledged it was strange at first being in someone else’s home but that feeling didn’t last too long. Diede became fast friends with Kole, the Kents’ affable “double-doodle‘ dog, and made friends pretty quickly with members of the Lake City volleyball team when she started attending preseason practices.
When school started, she made even more friends among her classmates and became so busy with classes, sports, after-school activities and her growing social life here that she didn’t experience nearly the amount of homesickness she expected.
“I’ve been able to keep in contact with my family on social media and that helps, too,‘ she said.
Out of the comfort zone
The Kents have encouraged their exchange students to participate in sports and extra-curricular activities during their stay.
“We like them to get involved in as many things as they can,‘ Kevin said. “It pushes them out of their comfort zone a little bit and lets them experience things they wouldn’t otherwise.‘
“I definitely did some things I wouldn’t have chosen to do on my own,‘ she said.
Athletically, Diede was part of the Lake City volleyball and basketball teams and was a middle distance runner on the track team. She enjoyed attending all the football games in the fall, though she admits to still not fully understanding the nuances of American football, and, like all the other Lake City students, she got caught up in all the excitement of the Trojans advancing to the state semifinals on the gridiron again this year.
She was also part of the highly successful Lake City basketball team coached by Bill Tisron that advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1976, and that was a thrilling experience as well.
Diede has also thoroughly enjoyed participating in drama and forensics in Dustin Webb’s classroom, noting that in her native Holland elective classes like those and other classes such as outdoor education and weight training are not available to students. Diede will always remember fondly playing a role in the Lake City production of “Sherlock Holmes,‘ even though she had not heard of the famous detective before coming to the U.S.
During spring break, she traveled with the Kents to Florida and experienced Disney World, another memory she’ll treasure when she returns to Holland this summer.
She has appreciated her friendships as well with Mari, Gabby, Tekoa and others that have blossomed this school year. Those are friendships that will continue, thanks in large part to social media, along with her warm, family-like relationship with the Kents.
“It’s been a wonderful time; it’s hard to believe it’s gone by so quickly,‘ she said.
“I met a great, great group of friends at school. I would recommend this to anyone. I learned a lot about myself while I’ve been here and I’ve changed as a person, too.‘
‘It’s enriched our lives’
The Kents agree that opening their home to exchange students like Lynn from Germany, Tiina from Finland, Karla from Denmark, and Diede this school year has been greatly rewarding.
“It’s enriched our lives,‘ Kristin said. “We wouldn’t change it. All four girls we’ve had have all made our lives better in different ways.‘
The really nice thing is the Kents remain in contact with their previous exchange students and plan to do the same with Diede.
“Social media makes it so much easier,‘ Kristin said.
The Kents’ previous exchange students have all been back for at least one visit and they’re already anticipating future return visits from Diede in the years ahead.
“They have the key; they know the door is always open,‘ Kevin said.