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Jeret Gillingham spent his junior year as an exchange student in Switzerland

PMG PHOTO: DAVID BALL - Jeret Gillingham with his host parents where he stayed in a village outside of Zurich.

Sandy High's Jeret Gillingham learned a lot during his exchange-year in Switzerland. How to navigate in avalanche zones, the intricacies of public transit and the fact that women's public restrooms look different once you walk through the door.

Okay, let's start with the bathroom thing.

Imagine yourself in the middle of a crowded shopping area. Nature calls. You notice two doors side-by-side. But neither carries the traditional gender symbols. Instead, it's a scramble of letters that make no sense in your mind.

"I figured I had a 50-50 shot," Jeret laughs. "I walked in and thought it was strange that there were no urinals."

Ah, the magic of learning my immersion.

That is how Jeret spent his junior year of high school as a member of an exchange program in a village 20 miles out of Zurich, Switzerland.

"It was my first time outside of the country," Jeret said. "I was walking through the airport gates to find my luggage, and it was like that feeling you get in your stomach before a cross country race."

The idea of living overseas had long been appealing to Jeret, whose mother Wendy Whittaker toured France as a high schooler, while his dad David Gillingham, spent time in Mozambique during his college years.

"In Oregon we are all very the same," Jeret said. "In Switzerland, I was meeting people from so many cultures. I was friends with people from Argentina, Uraguay, Mexico, just people from all over. It gives you a different perspective — something new to explore."

PMG PHOTO: DAVID BALL - Sandy senior Jeret Gillingham comes into Wednesdays district meet with the leagues second-fastest time on a 5K course this fall.

Smack in the middle of Europe, Switzerland was a perfect spot for variety, although Jeret also got himself involved in some familiar activities by joining a club soccer team and competing in a handful of road races. He even won the youth division in one of the events.

"Running is a passion for me, and I wanted to stay fit. Plus, it's a great way to see a city," Jeret said. "You end up going down streets you wouldn't otherwise. You'll see a sign that says this church was built in the 1730s, and you realize you are running past history."

The language barrier proved to be a block for the first couple months of his stay.

"I spent my first month messing up German, just spitting out the shortest words I knew. It was a lot of yes and no," Jeret said. "One day my host father came home early, and I commented on seeing him earlier than expected, but what I ended up saying was that 'he looked heavier than usual.' We had a laugh about that and he said that I'm still learning, so he'd let that one pass."

It took a few months for words to soak in, but through everyday life he began to absorb the language. Much of that learning came while preparing dinners with his host father.

"My host family is the reason I have a solid grasp on German," Jeret said. "Four months in I was understanding what I was hearing, and six months in I was able to respond back."

Along with regular samplings on fondue, Jeret's favorite meal was Spezi — a mac-and-cheese-style dish.

It was a similar timeline in making friends, who he found to be encouraging as he stumbled through learning the language.

"In their culture you have more friends and fewer acquaintances, so there were a lot of lunches by myself at the start," Jeret said. "But I just kept trying to speak even when I really could not and you start getting to know people."

PMG PHOTO: DAVID BALL - A public transit pass led to all sorts of adventure trips from wilderness hikes, to touring nearby cities to skiing in the Alps.

Knowing his time in Switzerland was limited, Jeret quickly learned the local trains and buses to tour the surrounding areas.

"The entire country is six times smaller than Oregon, so I'd wake up, point somewhere on the map and you can go anywhere in a day trip," Jeret said. "You go west and you hear French, you go south and it's Italian, you go north and you're speaking German. To have so many cultures in one country was amazing to me."

His first visit into the Alps left him unable to speak, not due to the language barrier, but simply because he was awestruck.

"It was nothing special to my host family, but we took a gondola up and you look to the left and to the right, and all you see are snowy peaks — I could not speak," Jeret said.

Jeret would return to the slopes numerous times to get in some skiing, although it was a different beast from what he was accustomed to on a trip to Mt. Hood.

"Anytime you go off trail, you are above the tree line, so you are in avalanche territory," Jeret said. "I had a friend take me through some pretty crazy terrain, and he slushing around all over the place, and I'm just trying to step my way through."

Another trip into the Swiss hillsides left his ears ringing.

"All of the cows over there wear these big bells," Jeret said. "It was so foggy that you could not see anything, but you could hear cowbells all around you."

He also enjoyed the challenging school environment, as gaining entrance into the Swiss-model of high school is a competitive quest.

"It's set up a lot more like university — it's a lot more independent and self-driven," Jeret said. "It gives off a great vibe because everyone who is in there is passionate about learning."

Spending the year in Switzerland let an imprint on Jeret, who is driven more than ever to make travel a part of his future.

"It's so inspiring to see different places, to force yourself into an uncomfortable situation and see where you go from that," he said. "Leaving the U.S. I was wondering what was going to happen, and coming back I knew I had had a fulfilling experience — just a great time."

As a senior, Jeret and his mother are hosting an exchange student from Germany.

He is also one of Sandy's top cross country runners this fall, posting the second-fastest 5K time in the Mount Hood Conference leading into today's district meet Sandy's campus trails.

Sandy boys split final regular-season meet

The Sandy boys cross country team beat Clackamas by five points and lost to Barlow by that same margin in its final league meet last week at Pier Park.

Sandy's duo of Jeret Gillingham and Tyler Callaway finished 1-2 just a couple strides apart with Gillingham posting a winning 5K time of 16:27.60. Teammate Tayler Kellim finished eighth in 17:41.0, beating the No. 1 runner from Clackamas.

The Sandy girls dropped a 19-point decision to Barlow and came up seven points short against Clackamas. Souvanny Carpenter led the Pionners in sixth-place overall with a time of 21:24.90, while Gillian Moore came in 20th in 22:32.6.

Sandy hosts the district championships on its campus trails Wednesday, Oct. 30, with the varsity boys racing at 3:35 p.m., followed by the varsity girls at 4:10 p.m.

This story is slated for our Oct. 30, print edition.

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