It can be challenging enough to navigate the social mores and academic forays of high school. Learning a new culture and communicating in a foreign language makes the experience a challenge and adventure for foreign exchange students attending schools in Tooele County.
“It’s a challenge every day, because you’ve got, like, new things and you come to a new place and you have all these new people you don’t know and you have a new family and all the culture and everything,” said Anita Pitarque, a 17-year-old exchange student from Argentina. “Getting used to everything is exciting, but it’s a really huge change.”
There are eight foreign exchange students in Tooele County, enrolled in all four high schools. Sponsored through different organizations and representing a host of different countries and backgrounds, the students have found that their preconceived notions about America have been both disproved and confirmed.
Pitarque is going to Tooele High School as a senior, though she will have to return to her school to finish her graduation requirements there after finishing this school year. Her brother and sister were both exchange students, both to Europe, and said their stories of the experience, coupled with a desire to learn about and change the world, fueled her desire to jet off to an alien country.
“I think you need to know about different places,” she said. “You need to learn about different things apart from your world, that you’re not used to.” Martina Hanuskova, 16, is a junior at Grantsville High School but calls Slovakia home. Her main motivation in studying abroad, she said, was to expand her boundaries and gain new experiences.
“It’s always good to know foreign languages and understand people not just in your country, and it gives you a lot of different experiences,” she said. “It teaches you a lot about being abroad on your own.”
Before Pitarque came to this country, the knowledge she had of the United States came mostly from movies and television. Not all of the stereotypes, though, have proven to be true. “All my friends are like, are there cheerleaders there? Because we see ‘Mean Girls’ and all those movies, so they ask all the time if everyone’s mean and pretty. We have music about Disneyland and everything. And we have this image that the U.S. has all this power, that they control everything,” she said.
“People are really nice and are super friendly. They’ll smile at you and ask you questions. It’s been fun.”
Visions of cheerleaders, football and rows of metal lockers also formed the expectations of Isadora Olbrich, a 16-yearold exchange student from Brazil. Olbrich’s father, Sergio, had himself been a foreign exchange student in his youth, and had spent his year abroad in Pocatello, Idaho. There, he became friends with a fellow student but lost touch with her after returning to Brazil. The invention and popularization of Facebook reconnected Sergio with his friend, Andrea DuClos, who is now married with children and living in Grantsville.
The old friends began talking, and Sergio said he wanted to send his daughter to school in Idaho as an exchange student, but DuClos suggested sending her a little farther south.
DuClos and Sergio found a sponsor and soon Isadora came to live with the Grantsville family. Isadora said her father had told her much about his experience as an exchange student, telling stories and teaching her English words throughout her childhood. She said staying with the family of a person she heard so much about as a girl has been a fun experience.
“I grew up with the idea that when I turned 16 I would come here and live here for a year,” she said. “I’m lucky to be in this family. They’re really nice.”
Still, her father’s stories could not totally prepare her for life as an American high school student. “He said it was like life in the movies,” she said. “You can never imagine exactly what it’s going to be.”
Sports and activities play a far greater role in school life than she was used to, she said. Going to football games felt like a scene from a movie, with enthusiastic cheerleaders encouraging an excited crowd. Christoffer Epert, a junior at Tooele High School from Denmark, said he, too, has been surprised at the emphasis placed on sports and activities. The 16-year-old has become involved with track and the school’s show choir, and was in the fall production of “South Pacific.” In Denmark, he said, those opportunities are available but generally not through the same institution that gives homework and tests.
“They have them, but they’re not through the school,” he said. “You can do activities, but they’re usually through private [groups] in the area.”
Culturally, things are a bit different in Utah than in some other places in the world. Isadora said she has been most struck by the overt religious tone and discussion present with many people she has met. In Brazil, she said, religion is rarely discussed so often.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” she said. “Well, it is to you, but not as much to me.”
Epert said he felt very prepared for the culture of America because his father does business frequently in the country, but was still surprised by the frenzy of Black Friday.
“Watching basically the whole of Tooele compete over a Barbie was a special sight,” he said. “It was very interesting.”
Hanuskova said she has found school to be in many ways easier than classes in her native Slovakia, but lessons here also seem to have a different motive and attitude than those she is accustomed to.
“I feel it’s more about my opinion on things,” she said. “The school I go to [in Slovakia] we have the knowledge and facts and when things happened, but here it’s more about what you think about things.”
Communicating the differences between this country and her native one is sometimes difficult for Pitarque — calling her family often would mostly serve to make her homesick, she said. Forming friendships with other exchange students helps ward off that homesickness and allows her to make the most of her adventure.
“I’m trying to be as involved as possible,” she said. “To have someone going through the same thing you’re going through, it’s nice.”
The experiences the year has brought so far have been fun and challenging, and the thought of ones to come is exciting, Hanuskova said, ultimately fulfilling her goal of trying new things and learning new ideas.
“I’ve gained a lot of experiences, and a lot of them I didn’t expect,” she said. “I’ve learned about myself and where I belong. I will be a totally different person when I come back.”