Veronika Brabcová of the Czech Republic visited Wisconsin a couple of years ago and went to a restaurant to dine with American friends. The Americans suggested they pray before the meal.

St. Mary’s Springs Academy principal, Doug Olig, poses with Global Outreach exchange students Levente Antalóczy, left and Veronika Brabcová. (Submitted photo by Blaine Hechimovich)“Nobody does that in Europe. So we were kind of shy and weren’t sure about doing that in front of people,” she recalled.

That is just one of the differences Brabcová has shared with her classmates at St. Mary’s Springs Academy in Fond du Lac where she and Levente Antalóczy, who hails from Hungary, are spending their junior year in high school. The students are in Wisconsin through Global Outreach, a Catholic foreign exchange program that teams students from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia with students in Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota.

Global Outreach has been in existence since 1990. Fr. Larry Seidl, spiritual director for the Global Outreach program, said Fr. Mike Carroll developed it as a way of supplementing enrollment and adding diversity to the student body at St. Mary’s Central High School in Neenah.

Fr. Carrol had visited a number of these countries that were just emerging from communism.

“He asked what we as the church in the United States could do to support the church in these emerging countries,” Fr. Seidl said.

Fr. Seidl said the program has worked extremely well.

“The mission of the program is to develop young Catholics who are leaders who will go back to their countries as agents for the renewal of church and society in their countries,” Fr. Seidl said. “And many have done that,” noting that some alumni have entered into religious life, while others have chosen to work in other ways with the church.

According to Doug Olig, principal at St. Mary’s Springs Academy, this is the first year that Global Outreach has asked his school to participate.

“They were focusing on having students come to a Catholic school and then go back home and promote the Catholic faith and mission,” said Olig.

Other Catholic high schools in the Fox River Valley and Milwaukee were or are still involved with Global Outreach.
Olig said the program fits well with St. Mary’s Springs’ mission.

“We always like to broaden our horizons and give kids a chance to broaden their horizons,” he said. “We give them an opportunity to promote their culture here, but also to take back what we have here … whether it’s our culture, whether it’s our Catholicism or Catholic faith or identity. We try to open our doors to as many families as we can, and this was just a nice fit.”

In addition to Brabcová and Antalóczy, St. Mary’s Springs Academy plays host to four other foreign exchange students who attend classes through more traditional foreign exchange programs. Olig said the addition of the Global Outreach students, along with the other foreign students, brings diversity to their campus of 227 students.

While Antalóczy became involved with Global Outreach a little over a year and a half ago, Brabcová is a second generation Global Outreach participant.

Her mother was one of the first students to participate in the program and Brabcová has visited the area with her mother who was reconnecting with friends she had met 23 years ago in Menasha.

“They (the Americans) would visit us, too,” she said. “I could see that my mom had made lifelong friends she can still communicate with and I thought that was really cool that she had friends all around the world,” Brabcová said.

Antalóczy became interested in the program because of its emphasis on love and leadership.

“And obviously one year in America is great,” he said, adding that he was intrigued in finding out what life was like in this country.

But interest and history didn’t get these students into the Global Outreach program. They had to undergo an intensive application process.

“That was tough for me,” Antalóczy said of the 38-page application process, which covered some rather mundane things such as basic family history, as well as some more intricate questions regarding faith.

“They (Global Outreach) do a ton of background work. They do a lot of screening of their students. They do site visits in their home country,” Olig said.

Once accepted, the students undergo a week of “boot camp” where they go through many rules and regulations.

Fr. Seidl said there is a strict criteria for the students they choose, including a strong sense of faith, demonstrated leadership qualities, age-appropriate maturity, good general health and a good proficiency in English.

“They have to come with the ability to hit the ground running. They have to be able to function in English,” he said.
In addition, host parents are also screened, as they play an important part in the development of the Global Outreach students. Brabcová lives with one of the teachers at St. Mary’s Springs, while Antalóczy lives with a family whose daughter was a recent graduate of the school.

Both students consider themselves faithful and faith-filled people, something they do not take for granted.

These students have had the opportunity to practice their faith. However, it was only a little over 25 years ago that their countries were under the control of communist regimes, and their families were not able to outwardly practice their Catholicism.

“You could practice, but it was more in secret,” Brabcova said. “We – Levente and I –have always had the opportunity to practice our faith, but my parents were not able to practice their faith when they were my age,” she said.

That history has had a lasting effect, according to Brabcova.

“People (in my country) are more shy to say, ‘Oh, I’m a Christian,’” Brabcova said. “It’s a huge difference!”
Antaloczy agreed.

“The same with my grandparents. Basically, they had nothing under communism; they are thankful for everything they have.”

Antaloczy and Brabcova attend Christian high schools in their home countries. But prior to attending a Christian high school there, Brabcova attended an elementary school that did not have a religious affiliation.

“I would be the only Christian kid in a class of 30 and I was so shy to say that I couldn’t do something with my friends on Sunday morning because I was going to church,” she recalled.

Her fellow classmates were predominately atheists.

“Czech Republic is the most non-Catholic, non-Christian country in Europe,” she said. The two students have shared these stories and similar ones with students in Fond du Lac.

Antaloczy and Brabcova are thankful for the experience they are having at St. Mary’s Springs Academy, although they agree the American culture is different from how they grew up.

“I can’t explain. You have to live in Europe to feel the difference,” Antaloczy said.

Brabcova added, “It’s hard to say, it’s a completely different world.”

They both mentioned maturity of students, school requirements, responsibility issues and material advantages as being major differences between the cultures.

There were a few common areas.

“Kids are really nice. They asked if I needed help,” Brabcova said.

“I’ll miss the helpful people when I go back,” Antaloczy said.

Brabcova and Antaloczy look forward to sharing their experiences with their friends back home.

“That is the point of the program,” Antaloczy said.

Olig said having the two Global Exchange students has been rewarding for St. Mary Springs Academy.

“We have had a very good experience,” he said. “They (Global Outreach) haven’t approached us about having any other students placed here yet, but I imagine if they come back again, it would be something we would take up with our administrative team and our board. They have been a great addition. It’s absolutely been a positive experience.”