By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Lena Janssen loved Kearney so much she couldn’t stay away.
The city is a home away from home for the University of Nebraska at Kearney freshman who grew up in Papenburg, Germany, a similar-sized community located near the Netherlands.
Her unique connection to Kearney was developed in high school, when she was an exchange student of sorts while spending a year with UNK economics lecturer Theresa Yaw and her husband Brent.
The Yaws both worked for Baldwin Filters, and Janssen’s father was an employee in the company’s Belgium office. Their friendship led to a discussion about swapping children for a school year.
“We kind of chickened out,” said Yaw. “Our kids just never learned German, so it would have been impossible for them to go to school there.”
Janssen’s older brother also passed on the opportunity, but she was game for the experience.
“I’ve always been interested in America and how life is,” said Janssen. “It looked very different from what our life is like.”
The German school system encourages students to spend some time abroad and English is taught early on, so Janssen was already fairly fluent in the language.
At age 15, she made the trip overseas.
“I was kind of surprised by myself, because I never was that person who would do this kind of thing,” said Janssen, who felt comfortable knowing she had the Yaws to lean on for support.
She enrolled at Kearney High School and completely immersed herself in American culture.
Janssen participated in cross country, swimming, track and jazz band for the Bearcats. The extracurricular activities were a bonus since they aren’t part of German schools.
“I tried all the things I couldn’t do back home. It was a lot of fun,” said Janssen, who was also introduced to UNK during her initial time here.
Yaw, who has two children close to Janssen’s age and a third who was already out of high school, was surprised by her guest’s outgoing nature.
“I was just so impressed that she put herself out there as much as she did and got involved as much as she did,” Yaw said.
Janssen gives the community some credit for that.
“Everybody is just so nice,” she said. “That’s what I always tell people when I talk about Kearney. The people here are just so friendly. That always stuck with me.”
This positive experience played a big part in Janssen’s decision to return after graduating from high school in Germany. She could have stayed in her home country and been happy or decided to attend a different university in the U.S., but Janssen knew she wanted to come back to Kearney and her “second family.”
“I felt like that year wasn’t long enough,” she said.
The Yaws helped Janssen apply to UNK and secure enough scholarships and financial aid to convince her father it was a better move than staying in Germany, where universities are tuition-free.
“We were pretty excited when we found out she made her decision to come back here,” said Yaw.
Janssen didn’t waste any time while getting involved as a Loper.
She’s in the UNK Honors Program and part of the Loper Programming and Activities Council (LPAC) and Food Service Committee. The 20-year-old is also a mentor for the Global Loper Program, which helps international students get acclimated to campus, and a member of the International Student Association.
Janssen and a few other UNK students made “a ton” of butterkuchen – a German cake – for the Scott D. Morris International Food and Cultural Festival held earlier this month at the Health and Sports Center on campus.
“It was a lot of baking, but it was a lot of fun, too,” said Janssen, who used her grandmother’s recipe. “I really enjoy showing people Germany.”
The physics major participates in a couple of science clubs, and she recently joined the Gamma Phi Beta sorority. On top of all that, she’s taking 17 credit hours this semester – after 18 last semester – and conducting research with a professor.
“I like to have a lot to do,” said Janssen, who wants to attend graduate school and has an interest in the medical field, particularly radiography.
Yaw is confident Janssen will accomplish her educational goals.
“I have no doubt that she will excel in her studies and college life in general,” she said.
Janssen, who lives in Men’s Hall on campus, remains close to the Yaw family. They watch “The Walking Dead” together every Sunday and hang out when time allows. She even took a trip to Minnesota with them over Thanksgiving break.
“I’m so thankful to have them,” Janssen said. “They’re such a great family.”
Writer: Tyler Ellyson, writing specialist, UNK News, 308.865.8529, email@example.com