Foreigner Not Foreign

Kjelil Gjesdal, left, and Steven Schneider were seniors and classmates in 1978-79 when Gjesdal came to stay with Schneider and his family as part of the American Field Service Program. From Bergen, Norway, he has returned every two years to visit the Schneiders he considers as a second family, even calling Shirley Schneider his “Texas Mom.” He was recently here for Thanksgiving and plans on bringing his wife the next time he visits.

With more than 4,800 miles between them, the bond between a local family and a Norwegian foreign exchange student has remained strong all these years.

Shirley Schneider and her late husband Carrol hosted Kjelil Gjesdal from Bergen, Norway from 1978 to 1979 when he and their son Steven were both seniors at El Campo High School. Gjesdal came to them through the American Field Service Program.

“That’s a long time for a friendship,” Schneider said.

Since that time, he has returned for numerous stays, like his most recent visit over the Thanksgiving holidays.

“He called me and asked what I was doing for Thanksgiving,” Schneider said.

She had planned to have family over for a traditional feast she told him.

“I said I’m having Thanksgiving, and he said he’s coming,” Schneider said.

He arrived the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Day and left the following Monday. Being in El Campo several days allowed Gjesdal and the Schneiders a chance to catch up on old times.

“My son took him around town and we rode around,” she said. “One day I just gave him the keys and said “go.’”

He also spent a day with Steven who lives in Wharton.

Over the years, Schneider, whom he calls his “Texas Mom,” has kept in touch with Gjesdal, at first corresponding through letters and phone calls, and now by email and text messaging, making communication quicker between the two.

“With text messaging, we don’t have to wait,” she said.

The Schneiders have visited Gjesdal in his home as well, meeting his family years ago.

“We’ve been there several times since he left, three to four times,” she said. “We met his parents, sister, brother and all of that.”

Schneider believes the lasting bond between their family and hers is because of their common beliefs.

“His parents and family have the same values that we do,” she said. “They are like we are. Family comes first.”

Education, she said, is important to both families, too.

“I was an educator as well for 23 years,” she said. “I was a reading specialist.”

Gjesdal is a computer programmer and travels a lot with his work. He and his wife have two sons and a daughter, all in their 20s.

This won’t be the last time the Schneiders will see Gjesdal, either.

“He told his wife before he left, ‘you’re coming with me next time,” Schneider said.

“I do believe people in El Campo should know that a foreign exchange program can work out beautifully,” Schneider said. “We have had a long lasting friendship.”

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