Maresa Manzione, president of the Tooele County School Board, speaks four languages: English, Spanish, Japanese and French. Her interest in language started through doing 4H as a child.
When Manzione was 12, an opportunity arose to host Japanese foreign exchange students for a month in the summer.
“I begged my mom to let us host one, and we did, and from that year on we had summer students, high school students, and my mom was on the committee,” she said. “So I got interested in the Japanese culture from that experience, and then I went to Japan when I was 16.”
She took four years of French at Tooele High and took Spanish her senior year.
“I thought it would be easy, and it was,” she said. “Spanish is very similar to French, but with some different pronunciation.”
She minored in French, taking it for three years during college and also minored in Japanese. She considers Japanese to be the hardest of the languages she knows, but she said learning French has helped improve her knowledge of language structure.
“Once you learn one Romance language, they’re all very similar in the way they conjugate their verbs and their sentence structure, so you could easily pick up on the other ones,” she said. “French helped me to pick up on Spanish faster, so I can really understand a lot of it.”
When Manzione was in college, she had an internship with the company that had sponsored her family’s exchange students. She lived in Japan for a year and became heavily involved with the program.
“My favorite part of having foreign exchange students was just getting to know about different cultures and meet different people,” she said. “They would bring fun games and origami, and then we’d get to teach them cooking and about the animals on our farm. I still keep in touch with some of the kids that we hosted.”
She also valued the experience she had getting to see the other side when she stayed with a Japanese family.
“It was a little bit scary because I didn’t speak Japanese, and the girl that was my age was in school the first week I was there, so I was with her mom at home during the day, and she didn’t speak English. We did a lot of charades,” Manzione said.
The positive experience that she had in Japan led to her hosting exchange students within her own home as an adult. Now, she periodically volunteers as a counselor for exchange students and meets with them once a month, as required by the state, to discuss any concerns they may have. This also entails meeting with the host family separately. Manzione hopes that her experiences staying with a host family give her empathy for the challenges and loneliness exchange students can face.
She said: “I think it’s a little bit easier when exchange students come for the full school year because when they come for a month you’re trying to entertain them the whole time. Whereas the high school students are there for a longer time so they’re more a part of the family and they can get involved in school activities. It’s hard because sometimes they struggle with the language, but for the long term it’s less stressful and you get to know them better.”
Manzione said she has fond memories of the teenagers that stayed with her family. Her favorite was a girl named Kimiko Kondo, who lived with her family when Manzione was 16 and liked to poke fun at the lazy way her host family pronounced words.
“Her favorite phrase was ‘L’eggo my Eggo’ — I guess she saw it on TV. It was very entertaining. When I went back to Japan as a college student, I would try to recruit kids to come to homestays or summer camps here. She was one of the counselors, and when I saw her, I said ‘Hey, L’eggo my Eggo!’ She still remembered.”
Not all experiences with exchange students are as positive; however, Maresa said, “I’ve never been a counselor for anyone who has gone home early. I had one student who we thought about it, but once we changed host families, it was better. I’ve been doing this as an adult for about twenty years, and I don’t think we’ve ever sent a student home. All of the students that are here have counselors, like me, and we can usually work problems out.”
Manzione said she considers her knowledge of languages extremely valuable, so it’s only natural that she would want to encourage foreign language study in the next generation.
“I think not knowing a language puts you at a disadvantage,” she said. “My husband and I have traveled a lot, and every time we’re lucky that one of us knows a language that’s either similar to or the same language that’s spoken there.”
As president of the Tooele County School Board, Manzione is now able to directly influence decisions made regarding education. She’d considered running for the school board after being frustrated while attending some of the meetings. However, it wasn’t until the school board member for her district resigned that Manzione took action.
Manzione was appointed to the vacant position. Then, she sought re-election and was successful.
“The school board has been interesting to me, and I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “I was a PTA President and my parents were both teachers, and I thought I knew a lot about education, but it was still a big learning curve. There’s a lot to be involved in, a lot to be in charge of, and a lot to know. The school board is mainly in charge of the budget and hiring the superintendent, and in order to do that, you need to have goals. So hopefully I’m doing a good job.”
Manzione was instrumental in setting up the language immersion program for first graders that begins this fall. Manzione’s nieces had been participating in language immersion programs at their schools, and that made her think more about doing the same thing in Tooele County. The road to approval began earlier last year.
“The superintendent, who has since retired, had been looking into it, and they found out that this was the last year to get a grant for elementary schools. Then we had to approve it as a school board.”
In fall 2014, the program will be implemented in five Tooele County elementary schools.
“The different languages are German, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese, and we have to hire five new teachers,” she said. “They have to be certified and pass a written and speaking test in that language.”
Manzione has a unique perspective in her position as school board president because she was educated in the Tooele County School District growing up. Her four children also attend Tooele County schools. She thinks that the education she received here has impacted her positively.
“I had a lot of opportunities growing up. There are more now, but that’s everywhere, not just in Tooele. I didn’t especially enjoy Tooele as a teenager,” she admitted. “I thought there was nothing here to do, but I seem to have found plenty of things to do, so that was mostly in my head.”
Manzione said that education in Tooele County is different for her kids than it was for her.
“I think some of the things are harder,” she said. “Classes move faster now, in most things. For a while it seemed like all of the subjects were segmented from each other, but now education has gotten to be more cross-curriculum again. We bring science into other things, and math into other things, and I like that.”
Manzione said she recommends that children be exposed to different languages and cultures from a young age. Speaking from her own background in the exchange student program, Maresa said, “I think that if you have that experience, if a kid comes here, they learn more about Americans, and then they can take that back, and if something happens in the news, and people are talking bad about us, then they’ll stick up for America, or vice versa. We get to know these kids, we learn about their culture, and it makes the world smaller. The only way to achieve some sense of world peace is to actually get to know people.”