An Exchange Student at 17
It almost feels like as if it was just yesterday when I was on my own on a plane not really knowing what to expect but excited for what the future had for me. Now I'm back home with a ton of memories, e-mails to answer, and a lot of stories to share. I don't even know where to start now that I'm writing about my experience of being an exchange student in Appleton, Wisconsin for a whole school year.
Well, I've wanted to be an exchange student my whole high school life. I read about summer programs in a brochure from IFS, and I thought then that living somewhere else for a while and having friends from another country would be the coolest thing in the world. I would be on my own, have my own Indiana Jones adventure, and fulfill my dream of having something different. Pretty soon, at the end of my senior year, Mama and I were applying to IFS and we decided that a whole year would give me so much more immersion and would make the experience so much better. I had meetings in the weekends about rules, how to survive, homesickness, etc. Then I got an email. I had a host family! Next thing I knew, I had a flight booked.
I was so excited and happy and I was telling all my friends about it. I was researching about Wisconsin in books and in the Internet. Compared to what I saw on TV and what I experienced when I traveled to places like Los Angeles, California with my family, Wisconsin was different. It was more of farmland and countryside. I lived in Appleton and its population was around 70,000 and I thought it was a small town compared to our Manila. There was no traffic, they only had one major mall, and everything was in close proximity. I didn't even know what to think of the cold weather. I just brought cotton long-sleeved shirts with me. But when winter came, I needed to get a coat. During the winter, the sun would set at 4pm and it wouldn't go up until around 9. There were days when the temperature would go below freezing and I was wearing around 6 layers of clothing just to keep myself warm. I never even blow-dried my hair before. I had to do it every morning after I took a shower because if I didn't, my hair would FREEZE. The thing I liked best about the cold and the snow was being able to ski. People were so excited for me and telling me all their snow stories (since we don't have it in the Philippines). I have never skied in my life either, so I was excited and proud to learn.
I was placed with the greatest host family in the whole world. They treated me like their own and they are like real family in another part of the world. I had a host mom, a host dad, a brother and sister. Ben would always be sweet and give me hugs and kisses. I loved every minute of it because I never had a younger brother before. It was fun seeing Katie grow up since she started to be a teenager and we would always tell stories in the bathroom we shared. Through e-mails we established that I was going to call them Mom and Dad since I was never used to calling older people by their first names. I felt super loved. They made sure there was tuna in the pantry (since it was my favorite), hugged me when I needed to be hugged, let me stay out late at night with my friends, and even let me have parties in the basement.
I went to an American co-ed public high school and that was a big adjustment coming from an all-girl private Catholic school. The school was new, everyone was different and it was so diverse. I have never met so many kinds of people in just one place. I was scared during the first day of school. I didn't know anyone, I got lost since the school was huge, and people didn't think I knew how to speak in English every time my teachers would say, And here's Elaine she's a foreign exchange student. But pretty soon I started to get comfortable. It was funny how people always got surprised by how good I was at speaking in English. They're like, Wow, you even speak better English than me. I loved answering people's questions like, So, what do you do in the winter? or Where is the Philippines? Isn't that near South America somewhere? or What's it like to have a coconut tree outside your house do you have coconuts everyday? I had the chance to take fun classes like Spanish, photography, and art so I met people with similar interests as me and got to go to field trips. My favorite was going to Chicago to see my favorite painting Starry Night by Van Gogh. I was an honorary member of the International Club and there was even one time I was giving a talk about the Philippines for the school's Global Awareness Week and someone asked me to say something in Filipino. So I said, Magandang Umaga, ang pangalan ko ay Elaine. They thought it was so cool and people started clapping and giving me a standing ovation. Just for saying my name in Tagalog!!!
I made a lot of friends and met so many people. I joined a church youth group, volunteered for a group for teens with cognitive disabilities, an indoor soccer team during winter and the girls track team during spring. Friends took me out to movies, hockey games, restaurants, road trips, rock shows and concerts. Someone even took me to see the Incubus concert! I got to do my first American prank, which was writing on boys cars with lipstick. Everyone was warm, open, and never hesitant in giving hugs. I would say that as much as I missed my family and friends at home, I never really got homesick because I had friends who made sure I was okay. They were all always there for me and helping me with all the adjustments I had to make, like school, getting rides, hanging out, shopping, going to prom, learning slang terms, everything. I will forever remember all the fun times I had with them.
One of the things I had to get used to and eventually enjoyed was how people picked up on my difference. Girls would always tell me how lucky I was to have a year-round tan and ask if I went to tanning salons! I haven't even heard of tanning salons since I got there! Some boys would ask me how I got my hair to be so black. I was shy and surprised by how forward some guys were. Unlike here, guys do not court girls. It's more casual. Eventually, though I got used to it. I realized that guys all over the world are the same. I became excited to be actually hanging out with all these cute boys, getting calls, and going out. Hugging with someone from the opposite sex wasn't even a big deal, and it was something I enjoyed. Going out opened my eyes to more similarities and differences in the American culture. It was one of the times I was so proud of being Filipina. I was different, exotic, and new.
Every month, I met with other exchange students in our area. I made friends with people from Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, England, Hungary, etc. It was fun when we were together because we saw how language, skin color or height didn't matter. We were all the same. We even got to bond right away because we were all going through the same thing as exchange students so we talked about the differences at home, school, and out countries. I learned so many things about other cultures, and even got to share my own. I remember cooking the adobo for a Christmas party. I was stressed about it but everyone loved it!
Being away for 10 months and living alone in a completely different world has taught me a lot of things. I have grown and my perspective has changed in ways I never would have imagined. I now can say that I am independent, appreciate my family and friends here more, open to new ideas, aggressive, and more confident about myself. Having my own adventure has proven to me that anything is possible and that I can do anything. It was the best time of my life and I will always remember how choosing to go out and discover what the world has in store for me was life-changing and will be something I will always cherish.
Study Abroad Guide
Hi everyone, my name is Marco Ratti and I’m 18 years old. I come from Italy and now I’m an exchange student with one of the best families in Colorado Springs. I first arrived in America the 7th of August 2016 as soon that I landed I thought, this place is awesome!
The exchange student year is an experience that definitively will change your life for the better, in fact, there is not a part of this year that was the best because the whole year was awesome! Here in America you have the chance to visit places that you never saw, improve by ten times your ability to speak and understand English, and the most important thing is that you will meet a lot a new friends; I met my new friends at school, at the youth group after church, and most of my best friends here in America thanks to ETC.
Being part of the exchange program taught me how to relate and live with people that you have never met before and how to manage your time and your money by your own. An advice that I will give to all the students is to respect all the rules of the family so that they will never be mad at you, if you don’t understand something ask to repeat because it might be something important, another thing but not less important is to be part of youth groups and try to play all the sports at your school so you will never feel alone and bored at home but you can always hang out with friends.
I learned how difficult life actually is and how hard it is to manage your resources on your own without your parents maintaining you. I also learned to respect and pay attention to every teacher that here in America can be considered like friends for you. My best memories are all the meetings with ETC and most important all the experiences that a made with my host family and friends, like Christmas, go skiing and hiking, all the sports games, and all the laugh that we did together.
This experience changed my life completely I learned a lot of new things about me and how to relation to new people that from now on they are going to be my second family and friends also if is going to be difficult to see them often they will always be in my heart.
The Story Behind My Journey
By: Suheila Peña
Everything changed this year: I started a new life, I created new bonds and learned more than I could ever imagine. I’m just a seventeen-year-old girl who was born in Torreón Coahuila, Mexico. My parents have always wanted the best for my sister and me. When my sister was sixteen years old, my parents decided that it would be a great idea for her to spend her junior year as an exchange student in the United States. It was a success; my sister learned a lot an
Suheila w/her Host Family!
d had an incredible experience, but let’s focus on my story. Six years later, my parents decided that it was time for me to live the same experience. I won´t lie, I was extremely afraid, but at the same time excited and looking forward learning about a different culture and traditions and meeting new people. I booked the flights and prepared myself mentally and physically. When I say physically, I’m referring to the two big suitcases where I had to fit all my stuff for the next ten months.
The journey started when I arrived in Elon, North Carolina on the 14th of August. After a hard goodbye from people I love, long flights, making new friends on the airplane and almost getting lost in the Atlanta airport, I arrived safe and sound. It was a sunny day; the weather was perfect! My first impression of Elon was that it is out in the country. There are not many tall buildings like in the city that I am from. Elon is full of trees and there´s not a lot of traffic. My host family received me in a very nice way. We talked for hours and it seemed like we had known each other for a long time. They are the most wonderful host family in the world. I can´t imagine this experience without them, but before going too far in the story, let me start by telling you more about Mexico´s lifestyle and culture and how it compares to the one here in the United States.
Mexico is a country with many traditions. The most popular and well known include; Day of the dead, “Día de Reyes” (3 wise men), the Independence of Mexico and Posadas. I love Mexico because the people are fairly laid back and are fun loving, and we always want to enjoy the outdoors and the sun. Family and friends are a very important aspect of our lives. When I moved to the United States, you could say I had a “culture shock”, mainly because the pace of life here is faster and not as relaxed as Mexico with a calm rhythm. The difference in time and meals is also different. In Mexico, I get out of school at 1:45 pm I go home and rest or help my mom cook our big meal, which is at 2:30 pm. After eating all together at the table, I help clean the kitchen and then I take either a 30 minute or 1-hour nap. After the nap, I start my homework and at 6 pm I go to the gym. When I come back from the gym I finish my homework, take a shower, eat dinner and go to bed. Here in the United States, my daily routine is very different, but day-by-day I get used to it.
Mexico and the United States have differences but also similarities in culture. For example, I love how women and men here will usually smile, shake hands or wave even if they don´t know you. In the religion aspect, most people in Mexico practice the Catholicism and here in the USA there are a variety of religions. We both celebrate holidays such as Christmas, Valentines Day and Easter. However, there are some that we don´t celebrate back home. This year I got the opportunity to celebrate my first Thanksgiving. There was a lot of food, and when I say a lot, it is A LOT, with all the different traditional Thanksgiving dishes. There were also family members that came from all around the United States. We talked, laughed and we performed a dance for everyone. It’s something that my host brothers and their cousins do every year. I had an amazing time and best of all, I learned about this holiday and its importance for the American culture. On Halloween, I carved my first pumpkin ever and it was so much fun! Also, this year was the first time I saw snow, went skiing on huge mountains and went sledding in the white snow! I had the most magical Christmas. Learning about this traditions and living new experiences has opened my mind in many different ways. Visualizing how two different cultures can be really similar and different at the same time has also opened my world.
While it is a blessing to live in the United States, it is also a challenge. I am a social and friendly person; this has helped me a lot in the adaptation process. When I first arrived I was afraid that I wouldn´t fit anywhere, but throughout this experience, I have met friendly and welcoming people who have made this easier. I can´t explain how much I love all my friends and host family. I have created really strong relationship bonds in school and outside school. Thanks to ETC (my traveling organization), I have met people from all around the world: Brazil, Italy, China, Spain, Germany, and France! I identify myself a lot with these friends because they are going through the same thing as me. I have learned from all their cultures and languages. We went ice-skating, to the beach, shopping, to fall and winter festivals and parties together. Most of them did the exchange program for just one semester. It was sad to say goodbye, but I know that these friendships will last forever even if we may not see each other in five or ten years. Oh, coming back to my host family, words can´t even describe how grateful I am to have them in my life. They have supported me through bad and good times. Every time I´m homesick or something bad happened they cheer me up. I can describe my family as charismatic, cheerful, funny, emphatic and with many unique aspects. They almost make it feel just like home.
The thing I miss the most besides my family is the atmosphere with the people and my friends, and also the delicious Mexican dishes. I also love the American food, in other words, fast food. I have cooked for my family some of the typical dishes from Mexico. I made tacos de discada, guacamole and molletes; even though they didn´t taste exactly the same, when I took a bite I could imagine myself sitting at the table of my favorite restaurant back home, the loud music, the people, and the amazing dishes in front of me.
I have learned a lot from this experience, and I have grown as a person. I have become more independent, responsible, organized, social and active. My English has been improving day by day; every day I learn a new word, meaning or slang. This experience is not yet done, but I can tell you that I have been through many challenges and all I have gotten from them is to know that we need to enjoy the moment, enjoy every second of our life because any day, hour, minute or second is not going to be the same as the previous. Time goes by so fast and when you least expect it, it is all over. God has placed me in the hands of amazing people that I am so glad to know and grateful to have in my life. This hasn´t just been “A year as a foreign student”, this has been “The start of a new life”. I am going to take with me everything that I have learned from this beautiful country and teach it to people back home. Many people ask me “How can you do it? I´ll never do it”, all I can tell you is that if someday you have this opportunity, take it. You are not going to regret it, you need to be brave and risk because nothing can substitute experience.
Last but not least, I just want to finish my story by thanking all the people who made this experience special in some way. Thanks for opening your hearts and your minds to a new culture. But mainly, thanks to my parents who worked so hard to make this possible; words can´t even describe how much I admire them. The story behind my journey has come to an end.
My name is Sabrina Sponfeldner, an exchange student from Germany. I spent my Exchange year in Peoria, Arizona in a nice neighborhood surrounded by cacti. The mountains are beautiful and the sunsets are nothing like I have ever seen. I am going to miss the perfect weather (I am told it’s less than perfect in the summer).
My Host sister, Sophie, is 13 years. She is really talkative and excited all of the time! I think she was more excited for me to join her family than I was about coming to Arizona. Chase, my host brother, was shy in the beginning, but he turned out to be the younger brother I always wanted.
Having younger siblings gave me the opportunity to be the big sister and I really enjoyed it. You can compare my host parents, Becky and Josh, with my natural parents. Becky is in
charge of the house, like my Dad. Josh was very kind and helps his children with homework like my mum! I am thankful they encouraged me to have more fun and to not stress out over school too much. They reminded me that I was here to have the full experience and not to just maintain perfect grades.
At first, I was disappointed when I found out that I would go to a small school. I was afraid I would miss out. On the first day of school, I joined the Girls basketball team, I had never played a team sport! It was a wonderful experience which everyone should have. After a few weeks, I realized I liked going to a smaller school. The students were nice and the teachers understand how hard it is the first month. In the beginning I was really homesick and started crying in class. I went to the Office and talked to the Principal. She hugged me and gave me tissues and was very thoughtful. What made the school the best was that several other foreign exchange students went there. We became fast friends. The small school turned out to be a perfect fit for me!
My best memory in the USA was visiting the Grand Canyon! Four of my friends and I got up early and drove several hours in a really small car. We listened to music and made many stops to eat. We drove back the same day and it was awesome!
Another favorite memory was being asked to Prom!! I was very surprised by the promposal! My date made a bouquet of dum-dums and gave it to me at school in front of everyone.
Looking back at these past 5 months, I see how important it is to step out of your comfort zone and just do it! I surprised myself as I became more outgoing and adopted the friendly attitudes of Arizonians. I learned how to laugh at myself and to not take everything too serious. I was in many awkward situations, but after all of them, the world was fine again. The exchange helped me to be more independent and taught me to take every opportunity. I even joined gymnastics with my host sister and learned to do a flick-flack (back hand spring)! Before I came here, I was afraid of dogs, but now I will have a hard time without my family’s dog! Milo barks and licks, it’s disgusting but cute.
My advice to all exchange students is to stay open-minded and to always see the good. Take the opportunity to be who you always wanted to be. Say yes to as many new things as possible. Live for the moment and make things happen and don’t wait for a miracle. Arizona became a really meaningful place with forever friends and family. I promise I will come back and you will want to too!!!
Rikako Abo – A lot of Love
My exchange student life has had great memories. I have learned a lot of things in America such as English, American culture, overcoming hardship, and love. You might be think “Love?” Yes. I learned love during study abroad. One big difference between America and Japan is that people show their feelings more. In my experiences American people have been so nice and open to me, showing me love as well as saying it. Americans often show and tell love, but Japanese don’t often do it. This is one of the major differences in culture. Japanese are shy and don’t show the feelings that they think. I’m very shy and I can’t express my feelings easily as well. My host family often says “l love you.” to each other. It’s very sweet, and when someone says it to me, my feeling is so happy! I’ve never said it a lot to my family. I just tell it only on someone’s birthday or during a celebration. That changed my feelings. I felt like I should tell them more than I thought. Also I have to think more about my family and make my relationship with them more important. Before I came here, I was very selfish. I realized how I was selfish, didn’t do a lot things by myself and depended my parents. Now I’m washing my clothes and do a lot of things by myself. Studying abroad is not just to study English, I can improve myself and I can find out who I am. Before I came here, I dreamed about what it would be like to be a part of a family like my host family. I believe my dream came true. Each day I have spent really living a fruitful life with them. When I can’t understand, they try to explain things to me and tell me new things, even my little host siblings! When I’m sad, they try to encourage and comfort me with good advice and a hug. At school, many teachers and friends have helped me. When I can’t understand during class, teachers explain it to me by using easier English and by talking more slowly. My friends help interpret to other friends because my English has a different accent and sometimes people can’t understand. My friends have taught me many things such as popular songs, dances, and some American slang. Also many students say hi to me in the hallways. The boys taught me American handshakes as well. I have had so many opportunities to meet people and make new friends. I have lovely friends who support me in Japan. On my birthday, my classmates made me an amazing video for me. I was so surprised and moved by their kindness. When I go back to Japan, I want to set a good example for us all. I’m so glad that I could study abroad and meet a wonderful host family, friends, and people! I felt many people’s kindness and love in America. Also my family and Japanese friends are always supporting me and encourage me far from the small island of Japan. I’m full of gratitude for them. I was moved by all of their warm heartedness. This experience is going to be such a significant memory and help me in so many ways in my life.
Discovering America and Nature
What most of all characterizes the experience of exchange students like me are innovations. Before coming to the US, I had never lived with a dog, and now there is Sadie; I’d never had any such addiction as the one I’ve now developed to vanilla milkshakes (I am already detoxifying!); and, besides tons of other examples, outdoor activities had always looked interesting to me, but I had hardly ever gotten to experience them.
During spring break, Chris, Meredith and I went for a week to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. Those days let me make many tiny breakthroughs about this new kind of holidays.
On the first weekend, Meredith and I drove to their place in the south-western corner of Virginia, a pretty house built in an idyllic frame — a grassland, the forest, two houses and a Christmas-tree field, with the Mount Rodgers Recreation Area surrounding the spot. On Friday afternoon we hiked on the Appalachian Trail, and went on with three short hikes in Grayson Highlands on Saturday. On one of the rocky outcrops we reached, I realized that my fear of heights was no longer limiting the pleasantness of those hikes: and it became clear to me that uncontaminated nature actually exists — and there we saw a whole bunch!!
By Sunday I started feeling slightly shameful about how lucky I was — my school friends were either idling all day or working, while my Italian friends had no spring break! But this kind of guilt trip was wiped out by the adrenaline of the nice outing Meredith proposed me: an 8-mile bike ride by the creek, down and up the Virginia Creeper Trail, a converted steam train rail. She had ridden that for years, but for me it was the first time I’d ever biked at high speed: pure fun!!
That night, Chris joined us, and on Monday we headed southward to camp till Wednesday in Pisgah National Forest. There I took up an even better disposition to exploit my chance like crazy, and great gratitude towards Meredith and Chris. We saw eight waterfalls, followed a whole lot of variously-sized streams, stared at wintry landscapes of broad-leaved forests; Chris and I slid down a chilly creek at “Sliding Rock”, and he introduced me to Frisbee-golf. During this week, I experienced camping life for the first time, and set two illustrious eating records.
Thereafter we headed back to our place in Virginia, because it was going to rain for two days. We relaxed as needed, and on Friday had a pleasant bike ride.
For the conclusive weekend, Chris and I went camping again on Kerr Scott Lake, and he introduced me to mountain biking. After a shaky beginning, Chris’s advice helped me control my bike better and better, and we had a fabulous time speeding up down the declivities around the lake. This sport requires high concentration, which I lack: keeping it up could teach me how to generally focus better. “Momento is your friend”, Chris told me all the time, thus keeping the number of my falls under the dozen (I think).
In these months here I am really gaining a possibly life-long passion for those activities, as well as lifetime friends, a new family, partial football understanding, culture, language skills, preposterous pizza topping choices, insight, awareness that host parents in their 40s can thrash you on the bike, etc. Guys that are about to start an exchange period know they’ll change, but it’s interesting that shifts will occur in unexpected ways and at a surprisingly blistering pace. And since these shifts will always result in personal improvements or benefits, they need without fail to be discovered and gone through!! I recommend my experience to all students on earth, reminding them to be most flexible… And wish them to find an awesome and active host family like I did!!
Damiano Aliverti Piurifrom Milan, Italy