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December 8, 2013

Oneonta's Foreign Exchange Student Program got green light 55 years ago

The Daily Star

---- — “A foreign exchange student, attending classes at Oneonta High School, looms somewhere near in the future.”

The Oneonta Star of Thursday, Dec. 4, 1958 continued, “The possibility of obtaining such a student is no longer remote since various segments of the community have indicated interest and willingness to support such a program, it was learned yesterday.”

The idea of such an exchange program came from what was then the OHS Home-School Community Unit, a group that had researched, corresponded with other schools sponsoring the program and heard a foreign exchange student speak here. The group was looking to bring the first student to Oneonta for the 1959-60 school year.

The student was sponsored at that time by the American Field Service. Felix Barnett, a future president of Wilber National Bank, was Oneonta’s AFS representative, as well as a member of the OHS Home-School Community Unit. A letter campaign sent to various organizations around Oneonta had been launched to seek support in the fall of 1958.

Charles Belden, OHS principal, said in that letter that the OHS Student Council had offered to underwrite half of the needed $650 to sponsor a student.

“However, the exchange committee believes this should be a community project,” Belden said.

The letter campaign was no doubt a success, as the Star reported that the first exchange student arrived here in mid-August.

“Miss Marketta Karkinen, 18-year-old Finnish honor student, who hopes to become a doctor, is now settled with her ‘foster parents for a year,’ Dr. and Mrs. Carroll E. Rusch, 35 Center St.,” according to the Star of Saturday, Aug. 22, 1959.

At some point during the 1959-60 school year, OHS received a second exchange student, Said Farid, a 22-year-old Iranian student.

Upon receiving students from abroad, the work soon began to raise funds and make plans for the first OHS student to study overseas. Moneymaking projects were planned in the fall of 1959.

The Echo, the Oneonta High School newspaper announced in its June 3, 1960 edition that, “Rose Zummo, who’s deeply interested in German reunification and the Berlin crisis, will get the chance to see first-hand German life and customs for two months this summer.” Zummo stayed with a family in Salzgitter-Bad.

“I hope I can help clear misrepresentations between Germans and Americans,” Rose said, “and create better understanding.”

Once back in Oneonta in the fall of 1960, Zummo was interviewed again by The Echo about her adventures in West Germany. It was told in the Sept. 30 edition that Rose went to live with a widow and her daughter who was the same age as Rose.

“I felt like a member of the family immediately,” Rose said. “My German sister always wanted to speak English which she had taken since the fifth grade. My mother there spoke no English, so I learned some German through talking to her.”

“For a week Rose attended the gymnasium which is the counterpart of our high school. One big difference she noticed, was that they have no extra-curricular activities and only one school dance a year.”

Also during the fall of 1960, a West German student came to Oneonta. Eike Schmitz, a student of Goethe Gymnasium in West Berlin, lived the school year with Dr. and Mrs. Robert W. Rounds.

Schmitz contributed an article to The Echo of Nov. 4, 1960, making observations of his home for a year.

“It did seem quite familiar to me when I discovered that kids in Oneonta favor the TV set to a history or biology book.”

“In the two months I have been in Oneonta I have seen how things go and how to live here. Every day at least three people ask me how I like Oneonta. Though my answer is always the same, I don’t get tired of saying, ‘I really enjoy being here.’”

Oneonta’s affiliation with American Field Service eventually gave way to the oversight of the Oneonta Rotary Club for what is known today as the Student Exchange Program. Currently four international exchange students attend OHS while four OHS students study abroad. Rotary members interview potential candidates, secure host families, counselors and complete all necessary paperwork for the success of the program.

This weekend: Living it up at the Hotel Oneonta, but not where you think it is.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at