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Foreign exchange students head home as school year ends

Foreign exchange students for the 2023-2024 school year are pictured at a host family party for departing students from left, front row: Sophia Valentino, Nikoija Mihajlovic, Marta Fuertes Frontaura, Noa Urresola, Meryam Jaafar; back row: Jacob Carp, Leonardo Bernolfi, Nazim Aliyer. Photo by Christine Pagano

They come in August ready for a new experience and expectations of what American life is all about. The idea of living away from their home for up to 10 months seems to be a bundle of excitement and nervousness mixed with a feeling of bewilderment, especially when speaking English instead of their native language is expected daily.

In the Southeast Missouri area during the 2023-2024 school year, there were a dozen Pan Atlantic foreign exchange students hosted in Jackson, Cape Girardeau, Fredericktown, Puxico, Oak Ridge, Neelyville and Poplar Bluff.

A brief glimpse reflecting their time here is based on informal interviews with some of the students while present at a host parent party held to wish them well as the American journey came to a close.

Two questions were asked about the time they spent in Missouri high schools. They were: What was the best part of your time here in the United States and What was your biggest challenge?

Not all students arrived in the U.S. or departed at the same time. The majority arrived in August before school began, but some came a little earlier or later.

Marta Fuertes Frontaura from Leon, Spain, arrived back home Sunday, May 19, and prepared to graduate with her high school class at Lancia Secondary School in Leon on May 23. She was a junior at Jackson High School, studying senior level classes. She is the first of the Pan Atlantic foreign exchange students in Southeast Missouri to return home.

She said, “The best part was experiencing things we don’t have in Spain like Thanksgiving and Halloween.”

Marta dressed up and handed out candy at her host family’s house. Her American Thanksgiving was traditional and included her host parent’s extended family including children ranging from 8 months to 17 years old.

Another favorite thing was Jackson High School. “I like teachers here. They are very understanding and willing to help everyone. Students here don’t appreciate it,” she said.

Marta applied to be a foreign exchange student for the first time in the 2022-2023 school year but did not find host parents. It was very exciting when she found a host family the following year.

Her biggest challenge was Christmas. “Christmas without my parents was not good because this time is meant to be with your family and it’s just not the same.”

Not all students struggled with Christmas. Leonardo Bernolfi from Albisola Superio, Italy, said his biggest challenge was “Going to a religious school.”

Leonardo, a junior at Saxony Lutheran School, had to pray, study the New Testament and go through all the motions of a student who was a Christian. He said, “I’m an atheist, but I got past it in a week or two when I began playing soccer, which helped me through this religious challenge.

“My best experience was going to Tennessee with my host family. “It was a nice moment to stay together and spend time with one another in a nice cabin in the middle of the woods in a national park. I played pool with my host dad who taught me some things about pool.”

Part of his best experience also included when his Italian parents came to visit and, “We went to Memphis and saw the Grizzlies play an NBA game. It was a really nice experience with a different culture.”

Sports seemed to be the solution to lots of foreign exchange students’ adaptation to American life. Sofia Valentino, a junior at Puxico High School from Sardinia, Italy, said, “Sports really helped me. I play softball and really enjoy it — for the relationships I found with the players and with the coach. It helped me feel more confident. I’ve grown a lot and feel like a different person. It’s like starting a new life.”

The school year did not start out on such an upbeat note. Sophia said, “Making friendships in a school where everyone knows each other and had their own groups was a challenge.”

At first she thought she could ask people for help, but “You need to figure out what’s best for you,” she said.

It was helpful that many schools the foreign exchange students attended have a strong school spirit. Sophia said, “This school … I like how everything is about school spirit. Relationships with the teachers is like everyone is really nice to you, they care about you and ask how you feel, regularly.”

The foreign exchange students in the Pan Atlantic Foundation have Holly Lint-ner as their area representative. She planned monthly gatherings centered on welcoming, holidays, sharing their culture and visiting the state capital and representatives. They traveled to Chicago, IL, to see the city during St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

“The best for me was our trip to Chicago. We really made some good relationships with the other foreign exchange students then,” said Sophia. “We don’t see each other very often and it was some good quality time. I love to travel and love that we visited a big city!” she said.

Cape Central High School senior Nazim Aliyer, of Bakir, Azerbaijan, said his most challenging time was at the beginning of the year because of not having any friends or knowing the town and figuring out how to fit in. “I tried to act like an American, eventually I made friends in classes. It was a lot of ups and downs, no big deal,” he said.

His best experiences included traveling to Hawaii and Las Vegas with his host family. “We visited six states while I was here. I saw differences in each state. They each have their own culture,” said Nazim.

For Noa Urresola, a sophomore from Bilbao, Spain, the most challenging for her was adapting to her host family. “At home my parents know me; here your host parents don’t know you,” she said. The adapting thing can be hard, but, “getting to live an American life on a daily basis and the friendships I’ve made is the best thing,” she said. “For example, in Spain I hang out with my friends outside of school because I make plans to see them. But here, there are opportunities at games like football, soccer, baseball, basketball to see friends. And pop concert! I went two nights, it was so good.”

Meryam Jaafar, a Jackson sophomore from Taguig City, Philippines, said the best thing about being here is “being in theatre and choir. It made me have a lot of friends. My theatre friends’ friends became my friends too.”

Things that made choir great for her were singing the whole hour, learning more about music and sight readings.

Other best things included football experiences. “It was the first thing I did (attend games) when I got here. And I understand it now,” said Meryam.

The biggest challenge was homesickness. “There was a handbook I got from my country and it explained the pattern of emotions I’d feel. I didn’t think I’d experience homesickness, but, yes, I did,” she said.

Future plans include getting into a university for political science that could lead to becoming a foreign officer and maybe get back to America.

Jacob Carp, a Jackson High School sophomore from Copenhagen, Denmark felt that, “the relationships I built here are lifelong relationships. I have plans of visiting next year or some friends might fly out. In my experience here I have grown as a person mentally. I found out you can’t really rely on anybody while you’re here by yourself. I learned to be friendly and social.”

In Denmark there are no school sports; education is what school is about. “It gets boring,” Jacob said. “School is way more fun here. American students couldn’t survive a day in Denmark.

“The fact that you’re starting with nothing … I knew nothing about Jackson, was the biggest challenge,” said Jacob.

Nikolia Mihajlovic, a Fredericktown senior from Serbia, said, “The best American experience was celebrating holidays. At home we had small family gatherings; after covid-19, maybe seven people. Here, at Thanksgiving we had large gatherings of 30 people and up.”

Another best thing was online shopping. “At home it’s not so good. It takes a bit longer,” said Nikolia.

Lastly, in the best things category, Nikolia said, “School is easier.”

Challenging for Nikolia was adjusting to cultural norms. “In my country we are touchier. We typically hug and kiss everybody.”

The lack of public transportation in this part of the country was also challenging. “You can’t be as independent,” she said.

Building diplomacy worldwide is one of the goals of a foreign exchange program. According to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs during 2022-2023, the top sending country of new secondary students was Spain with 3,960. The top United States destination in that same year was Texas, with 2075 new secondary students.

The students in this article were part of the Pan Atlantic program, but there are many other opportunities for studying abroad available, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. They can be financed by the student’s parents but there are scholarships available too. Length of stay also varies. Careful inspection of the program’s eligibility requirements and expectations should be made.

Opportunities to host foreign students in your home are also available for the upcoming year.

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