By B. Adam Burke
SOLON– If you’ve heard there’s a Serbian student at Solon High, you’ve really only heard half the story.
Levente Cipak, 16, has a dual citizenship: Serbian and Hungarian. He’s Hungarian but lives in Serbia, part of a tiny minority of Hungarians that have spilled from northern Hungary into the southeast European country of Serbia. He speaks both languages, some German, and is nearly fluent in English.
But this is not your typical teen, even a European one. Levente (pronounced Luh-vent-uh) is an entrepreneur, a journalist and a camp organizer.
Three years ago he realized a “huge business potential” in Serbia for free web hosting and started a company. Then he converted it to a paid web-hosting company.
He’s also a journalist and writes a weekly article, “Letter from America,” for a newspaper called the Hungarian Word. His first report, titled “My first days in the promised land,” detailed his initial impressions of the U.S., including a visit to the Iowa State Fair.
Levente is the coordinator of the youth section of the Hungarian Journalists Association of Vojvodina (the north Serbian province where he lives) and a member of the National Society of Hungarian Student and Youth Journalists.
Cipak’s past summer was filled. He attended camps, both as an organizer and a participant. He started at math camp, organized a journalism camp and, for his fifth straight year, went to a camp in Moravica where about 200 teens gathered for education, discussion and games. There he learned how to organize camps and lead young people in games and activities.
To get into the exchange program, Levente excelled in three intense rounds of competition that focused on English grammar, writing essays and leadership skills.
The first basic English test was taken by 50,000 students. Round two was an in-depth English test with three in-class essays. The field was cut to 1,250 students who were interviewed and put into groups to evaluate interactions during role playing. Finally, World Link, Inc., a placement organization based in Kalona, Iowa, placed 80 students with U.S. host families for the American Serbia and Montenegro Youth Leadership Exchange or A-SMYLE.
Much of Levente’s stay is funded by the U.S. State Department which compensates host families with a nominal room and board subsidy, a monthly allowance for the student, and travel expenses.
When host “mom” Barb Messer first thought about hosting a foreign student, she asked herself, “Is this crazy?”
But nine months after a battery of intense interviews for her family, they met Levente at the Cedar Rapids airport. He was greeted by the whole family: Barb, her husband Keith, and their daughters, Libby and Brianne, who held up a large banner with his name, welcoming him to the U.S.
Now, Barb calls her foreign “son” a “way cool kid.”
She thought his essays and grades got Levente into his nine-month stay in the U.S., but said it was also based on his “will, motivation, and desire,” too.
And desire is something Levente demonstrates in abundance.
He’s curious yet polite, confident, energetic, and charismatic. He’s just been elected the treasurer of Solon High’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter.
For his exchange program, Levente is required to perform 30 hours of community service and has been volunteering at the high school media center. But he wants to do more.
If he can complete 100 hours of service he’ll receive a signed certificate from President Obama. He really wants that certificate, so readers might meet Levente working around the community.
He’s also seeking outlets to give presentations about Serb-Hungarian culture and life as a Hungarian minority in Serbia. Interested businesses, organizations, or groups can contact him at email@example.com , or call 383-2406 to arrange a visit with him.
Messer said she believes in the program because of the importance of “finding out about other cultures and having people grow together through peace rather than hatred.”
Her family has planned trips with Levente to Chicago and St. Louis, with a possible trip to Florida also in the works.
Levente said U.S. and Serbian schools are different, the classroom hours are shorter in his home country and the emphasis is on lectures and memorization. But in the U.S., he’s learned “how things work.”
Initially he was scared of leaving friends and family, scared of going to a new school, and he worried about how good his English was. But all that’s behind him; now, he still misses his family, but stays connected through email.
Levente will return to Serbia in June 2012 to share his experiences and insight into U.S. culture. He’s already made a lot of friends here but he’s looking for more. And he’s improving his language skills daily, he said.
He also said he’s dreamed of coming to the U.S. since he was six.
Thinking about his adventures so far, Levente said he has to stop and remind himself, “I’m in the United States of America. Wow, my childhood dream came true!”