Strasburg sophomore makes exchange for Irish school

Strasburg High School student Joe Whiteman, 16, of Toms Brook, stands in front of a cottage in Cahir, Ireland, in this photo taken in January. Whiteman is studying abroad as part of the Council of International Educational Exchange, a nonprofit organization. Courtesy photo

When Joseph “Joe” Whiteman told his parents he wanted to study abroad, his mother Melissa Whiteman remembered wondering why.

No student at Strasburg High School has ever studied abroad, she said.

“He’s the first one in 30 years.”

But after meeting exchange students from other countries taking classes in Strasburg, her 16-year-old son decided he would find out how he could become one of them.

Now in Ireland for his spring semester, Joe is the only American student at the high school Coláiste Dún Iascaigh in Cahir, Ireland. It’s pronounced “Co-losh-ta Done Eesh-kay,” he wrote in a recent email.

Joe Whiteman

The school hosts exchange students from other countries, and so far he’s met other teens from Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Moldovia, Britain, Egypt and Poland.

Joe is loving Ireland, but admitted the country didn’t top his list.

His first choice was Italy, until the nonprofit Council on International Educational Exchange, which coordinated his overseas study, told him he would need three years of Italian.

“Strasburg only offers Spanish and French classes,” he wrote. “I considered going to Chile or Spain because I have taken a few years of Spanish, but ultimately I chose Ireland.”

The decision consoled his mother, who wasn’t too thrilled about her teenage son living in another country for five months.

Two of his uncles studied abroad in South America, she said, but they were in college at the time.

She wasn’t ready for Joe to leave home yet, and she worried for his safety.

“I wasn’t reassured until a couple of days after his arrival, and I got to speak with his host family and [hear] how much they adore him,” she said. “I think that’s when my worries lessened. I wouldn’t say [they] went away.”

His host, an older woman with a grown son and two grandchildren that visit every other weekend, has hosted other exchange students, Whiteman said.

Five hours ahead of his family in Toms Brook, Joe keeps in contact through daily chats on Facebook and email.

Having joined the basketball and rugby teams, he praised the school’s 35-minute classes, much shorter than the block classes he’s used to at Strasburg High School.

Principal Kenneth Knesh remembered the Irish school’s free lunch policy being a perk Joe hoped to institute at Strasburg. But responding in kind, Knesh said he reminded Joe of the school uniforms required in Ireland.

Unaware of any previous Strasburg students studying abroad, Knesh called Joe an ambassador for an educational opportunity other students might not know is available to them.

Judging by chatter he’s overheard, Knesh said the interest is certainly there, but until recently it wasn’t an idea that has seemed to interest his students. They might have worried about falling behind on school credits that won’t transfer from a foreign school — a fear Knesh validated as entirely possible.

Hoping to make the experience as easy as possible, Joe took his Standards of Learning tests early, and Knesh said he’s working with the student to help keep him on track with classes.

“Basically he’s sort of on loan,” Knesh said. “We’re a big part of grades and academics, but part of learning is experiencing the world. I think for some kids it would be a great opportunity to step out of the area and kind of experience the world.”

Describing Cahir as a cute, colorful town smaller than Strasburg, Joe supposed its look is so “refreshing” to him because it’s new — and also because there’s a castle in the center of town.

“You won’t find that in America,” Joe stated in the email.

“A huge surprise for me has been how much the Irish take their castles for granted. I understand that they’re used to having castles all over the place but as an American who has only seen Cinderella’s “Castle” at Disney World, I drool over each one I see.”

Joe isn’t sure he’ll be able to finagle a visit to nearby England, which he said would require a ferry ride, an overnight trip and permission from the school, but so far he’s spent his weekends seeing all he can of Ireland.

Two weeks ago, he visited Dublin, and last week Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford.

There he saw his first organized protest, disputing Ireland’s recent decision to charge citizens for domestic water usage and install water meters.

“The Irish have never had to pay for their water before and do not want to either,” he wrote.

Another thing the Irish have only ever seen on TV is school buses. Instead, they take public transportation to school, drive with a parent or walk.

“During my first week here I had questions thrown at me from every direction about America,” Joe wrote. But maybe most exciting for his classmates is his American accent.

As classmate told him, “It sounds like the movies.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com