Swiss man returns to Albion 45 years after being exchange student

Photo by Tom Rivers: Millie Gavenda was happy to welcome Philippe Nell, a former exchange student to Albion in 1972-73, back to her home on East Park Street last week.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 30 July 2017 at 8:36 pm

Philippe Nell, now high-ranking Swiss government official, says Albion was generous to him as a high school senior

ALBION – Philippe Nell was used to a strict atmosphere at an all-boys school in Switzerland.

Then he came to Albion in 1972-73 for his senior year of high school.

He flourished that year playing the trumpet in the marching band and in the distance events in track. He had celebrity status as an exchange student.

He loved the local traditions in Albion with the prom and cheerleaders at sporting events.

Nell keeps the newspaper clippings showing him winning races in track.

He treasures the friendships from his classmates, and remains close to his host family. Last week he visited Millie Gavenda, who welcomed him into her home 45 years ago.

“I had such a good year when I was here,” Nell, 62, said at Gavenda’s kitchen table. “It was a very bright year for me.”

Nell is now an influential diplomat for the Switzerland government, working on trade with the United States and Latin America.

He promotes Switzerland’s successful apprenticeship program, where two-thirds of high schoolers receive vocational training which allows them to enter the workforce right out of high school. He thinks vocational training and entrepreneurship are the keys to building strong communities, including in small towns like Albion.

“Businesses need good qualified workers,” he said.

Many of those workers often start their own businesses, hiring their own employees.

After Albion, Nell would go on to earn a doctorate in international studies from Denver University. He now teaches trade policy and economic integration at a university.

He credits the year in Albion for building his confidence and for improving his English skills that have proven important in his career.

Community members took him to Buffalo Sabres games and numerous other attractions and sites. Nell said he appreciated so many people welcoming him into their homes for meals and conversation.

“I did receive a lot from this community,” Nell said. “Albion played an important role in sharing American culture, in sharing American friendship and American generosity.”

He stays in touch with Gavenda, and she has been to see him and his family in Switzerland. Then talk often by phone. Nell set her up so they can start talking by Skype.

Gavenda, 90, said she considers Nell as another son.

“It’s been a very personal relationship,” she said. “We’re really a close family.”

Nell was part of the American Field Service program. When he was at Albion 45 years ago, Gavenda was married to Harmon Ries. Nell became close to their son Jim Reis, who excelled at wrestling.

Nell fund success in track and cross country, and wanted to give wrestling a try. He eventually did win a match learning some moves taught to him by Reis, who now lives in Washington D.C.

Nell first returned to Albion in 2004 with his two oldest sons. Ries by then had endured the loss of her husband, and remarried only to become a widow again. She has visited Nell’s family in Switzerland, spending three months in the country. Nell has lost both of his parents, and treasures Gavenda even more these days.

Gavenda said Nell was open to the opportunities in the community, unlike many teen-agers – then and now.

“He showed an interest in everything,” Gavenda said.

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