Alumni Spotlight - Jostein Refsnes '62

This month, we are excited to spotlight Jostein Refsnes '62 from Norway. Jostein was Pem-Day’s first foreign exchange student in 1961-62.

Jostein currently lives in Oslo, Norway with his wife Bente. He graduated from the Norwegian School of Economics and the Management School INSEAD Switzerland. During his professional career, he held leading roles at Young & Rubicam Advertising Agency. He has worked in Norwegian household product manufacturing, electric heating product manufacturing, aluminum industry and salmon farming industry in director and CEO roles. He also served as president and board chairman in private consulting in business strategy (after retiring in 2003). He is now active in local voluntary social work and fish farming matters.

His hobbies include sailing, cross country skiing/touring, choir, orienteering (a sport with compasses, maps and flags) and spending time at his two vacation homes -- a cabin outside of Oslo and his mountain farm. 

Q: Why did you decide to become a foreign exchange student and how did you choose Pem-Day?

Back in 1960, the USA was a “dream country,” attractive and exciting. The American Field Service program was presented during my sophomore year. I applied and received the scholarship. It was pure luck that my application happened to coincide with Pem-Day’s wish to have an exchange student.

Q: What is your favorite memory of being a student at Pem-Day?

I arrived on the Greyhound bus in Kansas City in late July 1961. The day after, my new family took me to one of their farms outside the city. My host dad, Allen B.H. McGee, had me branding cattle together with my new brothers, and I became a real cowboy!

Q: Who influenced you the most during your time at Pem-Day?

As the first American Field Service student at Pem-Day, I was a rarity, and people were curious. I felt welcomed. They strived to include me in their activities. Before  school started, I was literally put on the football field as a defensive tackle. I did not know anything about American football. I played in vain, as we did not win one game!! It was Pem-Day’s worst season ever!

I was well taken care of by my teachers. I especially liked Ceil Coad (history) because he often involved me, asking me and the class, “Where was Europe when this event took place in USA?” James Angell introduced some authors of debatable books. It was difficult to absorb, but a thrilling experience. I will never forget Kevin Madden (physics) because I had so much trouble with that course!

I ended up with a cum laude honor. I studied and struggled, and felt I educated myself in a broad sense thanks to the school and head of school Peter Schwartz.

Lastly, I must not forget Barstow and Sunset Hill. Being in an all-boys school, having two girl schools for dates and social life was a luxury and fun. Sock hops, parties, homecoming dance, senior prom with Bo Diddly and sneaking out during the nights to meet a date – all together were a bonus in the execution of a scholarship!

Q: Tell us about your experience staying with your host family.

My host dad was a true cowboy. He took me around in the country where I met his neighbors, who were cattle people. We went to the stock yards downtown. We went horseback riding to check for snake bites on the cattle out in the field. The McGees were the first settlers in Kansas City, and my host dad had a proud history story to tell me. Both of my great-grandfathers came from homestead environments, so I felt there was a connection to the stories he told me.

I was the fifth brother in the family. The oldest, Burr, was in college, so there were four boys at home. My host mom, Patsy, was the CEO. Sandy McGee (same class as me) was the football captain. I will never forget when mom, dad, Sandy and I went downtown KC to an 18th Street bar to listen to my favorite trumpeter, Miles Davies. What a night!

Our life that year, plus some visits afterwards, have made Sandy and me stick together. When I traveled in business life many times to the U.S., I always visited Sandy. We still communicate several times a month. All four of us brothers exchange photos from our lives, send comments and forward interesting stuff to read and watch.

My host mom and dad visited me in Norway in 1979. We spent a week together both at my home and in the mountains at my farm there.

Several Norwegian American Field Service students have said that my close relation to the McGee family is rare. But it feels natural given all the good experiences I had with them. I even continue to correspond with some classmates.

Q: What lasting impact did your experience at Pem-Day and living in Kansas City have on your life today?

Besides mastering English, which has been quite an asset in my business life, the 1961-62 year holds a very special place in my life. On my way back to Norway in 1962, the AFS students and I met in front of the White House and President John F. Kennedy spoke to us.

I will never forget that afternoon in Washington, D.C., which was a solid ending of a masterpiece of a year. The USA had become close and interesting. I had been treated in a manner I had not expected. I felt educated in a broad sense. I had become close to the U.S. events that took place afterwards. For example, on my return visit to KC in 1970, I met with classmates who were then Vietnam veterans.

Today at age 78, I know that I have profited in many ways from my year at Pem-Day and living with the McGee family. My generation and home in Europe since World War II has had a constant focus on the USA. My Pem-Day year has made my focus much more interesting than normal. I wish Pembroke Hill School good luck in its many efforts to develop as a top education institution offering to its students a learning base so they may find new ways for creating an attractive future.