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Exchange family "match made in heaven"

Granite Bay family opens home to German student
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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The "American family" of Thomas von Knebel likes to joke about his three favorite foods: bacon, popcorn and cheeseburgers.

Sometimes, Bekki Riggan would "do the mom thing" and encourage him to eat more salads, which occasionally worked. She wanted him to be healthy during his semester-long stay at her Granite Bay home.

"She's filtering this process through his mom's eyes," said Bekki's husband, Ron Riggan.

Von Knebel's mom lives thousands of miles away in Germany. Her son came to the United States in January to spend a semester studying abroad. Now, as the school year has ended, many foreign exchange students depart, saying goodbye to their adopted families.

Von Knebel returns home Thursday, and the Riggan family will go with him, at least temporarily.

Ron Riggan is a pilot with United Airlines based out of San Francisco who makes frequent trips to Europe. With a little maneuvering, he's scheduled to fly the plane carrying von Knebel back home.

Along for the ride will be his wife, daughter and son. And, in true exchange fashion, they will join von Knebel for a visit with his family.

The German teenager came to Granite Bay through the EF Foundation for Foreign Study. International Exchange Coordinator Cheryl Young said the program lasts for a semester or full-year. Students, 15 to 18, are screened for motivation, character, grades and proficiency in English.

Students are required to maintain at least a C average or better in all classes. Young said the program helps these students develop as individuals.

"It's important for students to perfect their English (and) to learn about another culture," she said. "They become more mature, self-assured and independent and make their own decisions."

Young said von Knebel and the Riggans turned out to be the perfect fit for each other.

"I think it was a match made in heaven," she said.

Von Knebel comes from Gottingen, a university town of about 121,000 people. The city is small and compact and von Knebel said he has no need for a driver's license - he takes the train, bikes and walks everywhere. But he wanted a new adventure.

"I just wanted to go to America and have an American experience, and it worked out for me," von Knebel said.

Meanwhile, Connor Riggan, who graduated from Granite Bay High School in June, asked his parents about hosting an exchange student, and they agreed. His older sister, Jenna, has been out of the house for four years now, and he felt like an only child. Plus, he has German ancestry.

"We wanted Connor to understand his background," Bekki Riggan said. "This was a cool way to do it."

In January, the Riggans welcomed von Knebel to California.

"He had a long flight, so the first thing we did on the way home was stop at In-N-Out Burger," Bekki Riggan said.

At first, von Knebel asked his new "brother" to explain a lot of English words, but he caught on quick. He's taken several years of English back in Germany and is familiar with American slang. Over the months, the family has done some traveling, but mainly Knebel just wanted a normal life. He did do laser tag for the first time.

"And it was awesome," he said.

He said the experience has made him more open-minded and interested in exploring other countries and cultures. Connor Riggan said the experience has affected his family, too.

"It changed the dynamics a lot," he said.

They started having dinner together more often and planning big family outings. They were happy to welcome von Knebel into the fold.

"I feel like a member of the family now," he said.

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.

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For more information on EF Foundation for Foreign Study, visit www.effoundation.org.