German student at Upsala learning about a very different lifestyle

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

Elisa Wirsig, from Hamburg, Germany, is attending Upsala High School for her junior year. She is staying with the Dave and Michele Gorka family in Burtrum, and life in a small town is much different than what she is used to.

“Hamburg has about two million people,” said Michele. “One of the first things she asked us was if there was a mall here.”

German exchange student Elisa Wirsig is staying with the Gorka family in Burtrum while she attends her junior year in Upsala. Pictured are (from left): Dave, Sam, John and Michele Gorka, granddaughter Amelia Reece and Wirsig.
German exchange student Elisa Wirsig is staying with the Gorka family in Burtrum while she attends her junior year in Upsala. Pictured are (from left): Dave, Sam, John and Michele Gorka, granddaughter Amelia Reece and Wirsig.

Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, lies on the Elbe River and has access to both the North and Baltic seas. It is also the second largest port in Europe and the 10th largest worldwide.

Wirsig came to Minnesota through the Cultural Life/ Open Door program. She said she was scared at first, but excited to have the experience of living in America and a small town.

“I had friends who came to the U.S. and they had a wonderful time,” she said. “I wanted that, too.”

A big draw to staying with the Gorkas were their horses. Riding has always been a passion for Wilsig.

“I Googled the area (Burtrum) and thought I would be bored living in such a small town,” Wilsig said. Burtrum has fewer than 150 people.

The August flight from Hamburg was a bit more exciting than she anticipated. When landing in New York, storms delayed the next leg of her flight, so she had to sleep in the airport.

“We were already at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport waiting for her when we saw her flight was cancelled,” said Dave. “We were worried until we got a call from her.”

The first thing Wirsig asked to do when they all arrived in Burtrum was whether she could ride the horses. They did, and they also took her to the Wisconsin Dells for several days of camping.

Wirsig’s first days of school were a bit confusing for her.

“My English is not too good, but everyone was very helpful. I made many friends,” she said. “My comfort level is higher now, so things seem a bit easier.”

Her school in Hamburg has more than 3,000 students, there are no organized sports and each day of the week she attends different classes. There is also no prom, homecoming or graduation exercises.

“I think we have more freedom in school in Germany. We can leave school if our class is cancelled and we can eat lunch out,” she said. “But in Upsala, the teachers spend more time with each student because the classes are smaller.”

All German students attend the same type of school from first – fourth grade. Then one’s teacher recommends which school would be better for each student for the next nine years, depending on skills, intelligence and maturity. When finished with the first 13 years, a rigorous test is given to show if the student is university material. There is a strict criteria to attend college.

At Upsala, Wirsig has become part of the band and participated in a concert competition in Sauk Centre. She also plays in the pep band and is excited to be playing at the girls basketball state tournament at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

Coming from a large city, Wirsig is used to dressing for each occasion. Living in the country, she has learned that skinny jeans are not as practical as others and that dressing up is not a priority for many activities.

Wirsig’s new experiences include living with a large family. She is an only child and it’s just her and her mother living together in Hamburg. The Gorkas have two children still at home; Samantha is 19 and John is 11. Also, grandchildren Amelia, 2, and Morgan, 4, are at the house a lot. It’s a busy place.

Mountain Dew, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies, Butterfinger candy bars and beer batter fries are all new foods Wirsig has fallen in love with. She was not as thrilled with animal tongue or venison.

“But she tries everything we have given her,” said Michele.

Wirsig has tried snow tubing at Eagle Mountain, four-wheeling and cutting wood, all activities she enjoyed. And, she learned she doesn’t have to look pretty to cut wood; that it’s better to dress accordingly.

Trips to a dairy farm, Mall of America, and the Albertville Shops have been a few of her excursions.

“I am going to have a problem bringing home all the clothes I bought,” said Wirsig. “My mother, Dorle, came for a visit at Christmas and I sent home some clothes with her.”

Wirsig said she will miss the snow, something she sees in Hamburg, but not to the extent Minnesota has seen this year, and all the activities she has participated in during the year.

“There is less stress living in the country,” she said.