Foreign exchange student returns for 50th reunion
By Jane Myhra
Meg (Dobson) Coonan, of Australia, was the first foreign exchange student to attend Iola-Scandinavia High School.
She recently returned for the 50th reunion of the Class of 1966. It was her sixth visit since graduating from ISHS.
“This visit was special because it could be my last visit,” Coonan said. “It’s hard to know if I will have an opportunity to return.”
Most of her trips to the area were coordinated to include class reunions.
“It is special to renew friendships and hear classmates’ stories,” she said.
Through the American Field Service (AFS), Coonan attended ISHS during the 1965-66 school year and received a diploma in May 1966. She also received a diploma from her Australian school, in Canberra, in December of 1966.
“It was my first opportunity to travel abroad and experience multi-cultural activities,” she said. “The significance of the program influenced me to become very involved, returning to Australia and serving on the Australian Board of Directors and serving on the state level for the AFS student exchange program.”
She said the teachers at ISHS helped influence her career choices.
“I developed a love of learning and travel and a fascination of the richness our cultural differences offer,” Coonan said.
Upon her return to Australia, she received a teaching scholarship, studied for a bachelor of arts degree in accounting and computing, and graduated with a computers in education degree.
She taught business for grades 9-12 in government and private schools in Barcaldine, Toowoomba, Canberra, before being hired by the Commonwealth Government Departments.
As a government employee she worked on policy and programs associated with education, employment and indigenous education, university technology systems, electronic documents record management systems, and consulting.
After retiring from the government, she obtained her Realtor’s license and is currently selling Real Estate.
Her husband John is a retired high school assistant principal. The couple lives in Brighton, Queensland, and has three children – Danielle, Matthew and Damian – and four grandsons.
During the 1965-66 school year, Coonan was a member of the Bob and Marge Paske family, in rural Scandinavia. She was raised on a farm in Caboolture, Australia, so the AFS matched her to a farm family in the Midwest.
Her host siblings were Marjorie “Peggy,” a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh; Mary, a junior at ISHS; Bob, a freshman at ISHS; and Bill, a fourth grader at Scandinavia Grade School.
“At the encouragement of Iola Village President Adam Horle, my parents applied and were accepted by the AFS to be Meg’s host family,” said Mary (Paske) Olson. “We had just moved to the Iola-Scandinavia area the year before, so this was a real treat.”
“One of the requirements of the program was that she had her own room,” Olson said. “My parents owned a six-bedroom house, so that was perfect.”
“Apart from ‘vegemite’ (an Australian spread made from yeast products), I missed family and friends,” Coonan recalled of her year in the U.S. “Without the current communication mediums available in those days, tapes posted were the main way I kept in touch. Telephone calls were not possible, except for one Christmas call after a lot of difficulty.”
Her most treasured memory of her ISHS days were the experiences shared with friends and family. Since 1966, Coonan has kept in contact with her U.S. friends and family via email, cards, Facebook and class reunions.
“Originally (communicating) was slow until social media and of course Facebook,” she said.
During her most recent visit, Coonan stayed with Mary and Steve Olson, in Iola. She attended the Scandinavia Corn Roast and rode on the Class of ’66 float in the corn roast parade.
Coonan also presented a framed indigenous painting to the I-S High School a school board meeting.
According to Olson, I-S teacher Travis Bassett asked Coonan to look at a painting in his classroom. It was the one she presented to the school 50 years ago.
“It was nice to see that the painting ‘Droving in to the Light’ survived the move from the old high school and teacher changes,” Olson said. “It had the plaque with Marguerite Dobson’s name on it.
While staying in Iola, Coonan visited Veterans Memorial Park, Iola Car Show Grounds, had breakfast and dinner with friends at Crystal Café, enjoyed grilled sandwiches and gelato at The Millstone, a boat ride on the Chain O’ Lakes, and visited the house where she lived during high school.
As she summed up her trip, Coonan shared the AFS motto:
“Walk together, talk together all ye peoples of the world and then and only then can we have peace.”