Friendship spans two continents, 30 years

WEST PARIS – While some people dread going to their high school reunions, Marie Sturgis traveled halfway around the world to attend hers.

Thirty years ago, Sturgis, then Marie Howard, came to Maine from her native New Zealand to spend a year as an exchange student with Edwin and Jane Gibson. Since then, she has returned to Maine five times – the latest being her Oxford Hills High School reunion.

The Gibsons have also visited her in New Zealand, as has her host-sister Ellen Gibson, the Gibsons’ daughter.

Sturgis said her host family opened new vistas to her.

“I tested them at times I came out of a very structured life, and I was experiencing all the freedoms,” she said.

Her school in New Zealand had been “very modest, traditional, regimented,” and she was surprised to find that in America she could study topics like psychology and creative writing. She graduated from Oxford Hills High School.

“I got very excited about my courses here,” she said.

She was less excited about the competitive spirit she saw in her classmates and teachers. “I was appalled to be told that if we didn’t win the state competition (in choir), that we were nothing.” In New Zealand, she explained, even school sports weren’t very competitive. She learned to see these differences between cultures as “not right or wrong, just different.”

Her return visits to Maine have been motivated by an interest in the past.

“I love the history in Maine. A house like this,” she went on, gesturing around the Gibson farm, “this would be a museum in New Zealand. Here, it’s somebody’s home.”

New Zealand was colonized by Europeans in the 1800s, about the same time the house Ellen Gibson now lives in was built. Sturgis had never been particularly interested in history before she first came to Maine, but she developed a passion for it while she was here. When she returned to her native country, it was to study history. In fact, a grant to study living history museums in New England and eastern Canada funded one of her return visits to Maine.

Ellen Gibson has also benefited from the longtime friendship.

“It’s been a really neat connection,” said Ellen Gibson, who has maintained a “constant flow of letters” over the past 30 years. “AFS is playing a really important role in promoting cultural relations.”

Before meeting Sturgis, she “had never heard of New Zealand.” Now, her cross-cultural relationship is so important to her that she joined the planning committee for her 30th reunion in order to ensure that it would coincide with her friend’s vacation.

The friendship “has definitely enriched my life,” Ellen Gibson said.

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