EDINBORO, PA (January 10, 2017) – When General McLane alumna Judy Gnagi Lawrence (’62) was in high school, she became close friends with a foreign exchange student, Oemar Mustafa.
The two stayed connected by writing letters after he returned to his home country of Indonesia.
The correspondence ended, however, a couple years later when Mustafa was killed crossing a busy street in Jakarta.
Although Mustafa was gone, he continued to have an impact on Lawrence. It was his influence that fueled her interest in Idonenesia, a place she finally had a chance to visit in January of 2015.
“Never, ever did I imagine that more than 50 years later, I’d be visiting his native Indonesia. That’s the power and reach of a General McLane High School (and Edinboro University) education, literally taking me halfway around the world,” said Lawrence, who spoke about her trip to the Erie Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) at the Jefferson Educational Society.
In one of Lawrence’s last letters from him, Mustafa expressed his desire to come back to the states and teach her how to swim.
“Since Indonesia is a series of islands, for him, swimming was a natural thing. So, he was always going to come back and teach me how to swim,” she said. “Well, when I visited Indonesia, I went swimming) after having learned to swim at the YMCA).”
Mustafa was the first foreign exchange student at General McLane High School. After it formed in 1960, the District approved its first exchange student through American Field Service in 1961.
When the foreign exchange program in the District first formed, one way that the District elicited financial support for its foreign exchange students was through student shares. Arranged by General McLane Student Council, General McLane students could be part of the experience by purchasing a share.
“I don’t imagine they raised that much money, but it also allowed for students to be part of it. We had a vested interest in our foreign exchange students,” Lawrence said.
In return, students received a certificate that declared “dividends will be paid, to the holder, in the form of rich satisfaction and friendship in welcoming and sharing our school and community with the student from abroad.”
“The last sentence was so true, that clearly happened,” Lawrence said. “The added bonus was the life long experience that it afforded. That’s not written here. But who could know that in 1962, we would have these experiences that can be traced back to our early exposure to foreign exchange students.”
The following year, the High School hosted Eva Mohlenbrock from Sweden. After a year-long process of applying for a scholarship with the American Field Service, Mohlenbrock finally received her acceptance letter.
“When it said that I was to live with a family in McKean, Pennsylvania, I tried to find it on my map-in vain,” said Mohlenbrock. “I was envious at first of some of the other exchange students who were going to California and other exciting places I had heard about, but when I compared my experience with those who had stayed in big cities and gone to equally big schools, I realized I had drawn the winning ticket!”
For General McLane students, this experience was equally as rewarding.
“There was no internet, no cellphones, no way to really get in touch with the rest of the world except newspapers and the half hour of world news on the t.v., but it was just as important at that time to broaden our horizons. Eva really helped to do that for us,” said Joan Kappelt Zalonis (’62).
Mohlenbrock lives in three different places throughout the year, but reunited with classmates just four years ago during the General McLane 50th Reunion, thanks to the research done by Maia (formerly Joan) Chisholm (‘62) on Eva’s whereabouts.
“When I have told my children and grandchildren about my year in the US, about school dances, games, drive-in movies, going to McDonald’s for hamburgers and milkshakes, they say it sounds just like A High School Musical,” Mohlenbrock said. “And so, when I received a phone call a couple of years ago and was asked if I wanted to come to the 50th anniversary, I immediately said yes.”
The passed time didn’t make a difference.
“Fifty years had passed, but we recognized each other immediately and started talking as if no time had passed,” Zalonis said. “When I was 17 years old, I thought, ‘Wow, in fifty years, I will be such a different person with different interests.’ Then, you look back and realize you are the same person just with different experiences.”
Through the reunion, Mohlenbrock was able to revisit General McLane.
“It was a very emotional moment to be guided through the school by the principal. General McLane has of course grown and developed so much over the years, but walking down the hall to our old home room still felt very much familiar,” she said. “I also had the opportunity to re-visit Edinboro and McKean and drive up to the old farmhouse where I stayed. Again, it can’t be said often enough: to be part of a small community, where everyone seemed to know each other, and where so many people went out of their way to make me feel at home, has made a tremendous impact on my life, and formed the picture of the US that I have tried to spread at home.”
It was during this reunion that Mohlenbrock invited her classmates to come visit her. Some of her classmates took advantage of this invite.
Lawrence and her husband Floyd visited her in France that fall, and Zalonis and Chisholm visited Mohlenbrock and her husband in Provence, France last September. This past summer, Zalonis made another visit, this time to her home in Gothenberg (Goteborg), Sweden.
“Who would have thought that more than 50 years later, we would be together south of France with our husbands, having lunch at a nice restaurant and just reconnecting and talking about current times? It was beyond anything I could have imagined happening,” Lawrence said.
Since hosting its first exchange student in 1961, the District continues to host a handful each year. For the 2016-17 school year, General McLane High School is currently hosting seven students from France, Italy, Austria, Germany and Finland.
The addition of foreign exchange students to the General McLane High School student body offers many benefits to its participating students, the students of General McLane, its teachers and community.
“We were told by the American Field Service to act as student ambassadors for our respective countries,” Mohlenbrock said. I don’t know if I managed to explain/correct some aspects/misconceptions of Swedish life, traditions, and politics, but as my senior project I chose to write about the Swedish welfare system, and called it ‘It ain’t necessarily so.’”
During these experiences, participants often build close friendships with not only their host families, but also classmates from the hosting schools. General McLane’s alumni experiences are no different.
“These experiences you had during high school, they simmer in the background of your brain, sometimes for many years, but they can really influence your future and friendships and choices,” said Zalonis. “Partly because of Eva, I really wanted to travel. She was the first person I had gotten to know from another country. Immediately after college, the first thing I decided to do was start traveling.”
Zalonis wasn’t the only one inspired from her experience.
“My experiences knowing Oemar and Eva planted an early seed to discovering the world through travel and reading on my own,” said Lawrence, whose first trip was during the mid- 80s and has since explored many different countries and cultures.
“Our exchange program ignited my interest in other countries’ customs and people,” Lawrence added. “These students expanded our vision of the world. I learned tolerance, understanding and appreciation of people who are different, and yet similar.”
General McLane School District serves students in kindergarten through twelfth grade in Franklin, McKean and Washington Townships, as well as the borough of McKean and Edinboro. The District also serves tuition students throughout Erie County.