by Joe Bollig
WELLSVILLE — Sometimes, it’s better that what happens in Wellsville stays in Wellsville.
At least, that was the case for Indonesian exchange student Widya Pramesti, 18, a junior at Wellsville High School.
On only the fourth day of her physical education class, she was elbowed in one of her eyes during a spirited indoor flag football game.
“We had to take her to the hospital and run an MRI,” said Peggy Carmen, her host mother. “We had her eye checked for three more appointments. It swelled up and was black and blue and bloody for a month.”
This, judged Widya, was one of those things you don’t tell your nervous parents back home. So she swore the Carmen family to secrecy and only sent her parents “strategic” photos until she was mostly healed.
“She waited until it was all cleared and then she told her parents,” said Peggy.
Other than that, the past 10 months have been a wonderful experience for Widya — from the city of Gianyar on the island of Bali — and for Doug, Peggy and Marisa Carmen. The Carmens belong to Annunciation Parish in Baldwin, which is northwest of Wellsville.
Being an international exchange student — and being a host family — is a challenging experience. It’s meant to be — in a good way. Both parties can learn a lot from each other.
That was certainly the case when the Carmens hosted a student from Slovakia during the 2011-2012 school year.
“Because she was Catholic, she was able to undergo altar server training and became involved in the parish with Katrina, our older daughter, and Marisa,” said Peggy. “Sometimes, they all served together.”
When Katrina went off to college, Marisa, 16, a sophomore at Wellsville High School, begged Peggy to sign up for another foreign exchange student.
“I don’t really like being the only child,” said Marisa. “I really want to travel and I’m interested in traveling to other countries. Having an exchange student helps you get into it more. It’s like having another sister.”
They contacted Anita Sass, the Council on International Student Exchange representative who lives in Baldwin, to see what could be done.
Among the many students in the program was Widya Pramesti. Widya has a mother, father and two younger siblings. She speaks Balinese, Indonesian, English and some Japanese. She won a scholarship to come to the United States.
“Before I came here and knew what America looks like, when people talked about America, what popped up in my mind was a big place like New York or Washington, D.C.,” said Widya. “But I love this place. People are friendly.”
Meanwhile, as the Carmen family was reviewing prospective students, Peggy hoped they’d get another Catholic girl.
“I was skeptical about choosing a student who was not Christian because church is a weekly thing, and Marisa is involved in church activities,” said Peggy.
But Marisa chose Widya — because she liked math and cats.
“It was a lot of Anita convincing us that a student like Widya would be a good fit, even though religion was the one big thing that held us back,” said Peggy. “We were worried that her religion or ours would be too different and it would be uncomfortable for both of us.”
Actually, the experience has been the complete opposite of that.
Widya, who practices Balinese Hinduism, has been very open to learning about Catholicism. She goes to Mass with the family, sings the hymns and even goes to Annunciation Parish’s high school youth group.
She practices her own religion privately, although the Carmens hope to take her to a Hindu temple in Johnson County.
“My religion is pretty complex, so I don’t have to go to a temple to pray,” said Widya. “I can just do it in my room — sit down, be calm and pray. That’s enough.”
Indonesia is 87 percent Muslim, so she knew few Christians before coming to Kansas.
“I actually learned a lot in youth group because we do a lot of discussion,” said Widya. “I learned how the Word was created according to Christian belief, and about the theology of the body.”
The Carmens have also tried to explain to her the basic elements of Catholic Christianity.
“In church, although she may not be grasping everything, we tell her the stories of what Easter is all about, and Christmas, and how Jesus is a big part of Catholic belief, and the Bible has stories about his life,” said Peggy. “She follows along in the [missal] and sings.”
At home, there were teaching opportunities as well.
“This family is great because they pray before they eat, and that is not the thing I usually do at home,” said Widya. “It’s good. My religion commands me to pray before I eat, but not a lot of people do that.”
In school, Widya is taking pre-calculus and has practically taught herself to play the clarinet. She and Marisa are in band, forensics and a business leaders club.
“She went to state with a trio ensemble,” said Peggy. “They won a one in regionals and a two at state.”
“I’d love to continue, but not a lot of people play clarinet at home, unless I go to a music institute,” said Widya.
Widya will return home in June. And she will be taking new skills with her — like baking and playing the clarinet — and a new perspective on Christianity. She will miss going to school and parish youth group with her “sister” Marisa. And she’ll definitely miss Peggy’s cooking — especially her goulash.
“Host Mom [Peggy Carmen] is, like, ‘Are you fine with the food?’” said Widya. “She tried so hard to make the food like my own food at home.
“I feel so loved. It makes me so happy here.”