Being an exchange student is not easy at all. It means leaving everything behind and starting all over again, making new friends, speaking another language, and going to a different school where education takes place in a different style. When we come here, we don’t think about how much we’ll miss our parents and siblings. We first think that we will miss our friends and all the gossip at school, but being here makes us realize how much we need our family. Other exchange students and our parents always tell us that through this experience, we will see who our real friends are, and that is true. Our family and our real friends are with us no matter what.
My name is Claudia Serna. I was born in Barcelona, Spain, but I live in Madrid. This year, I am a sophomore at Traip Academy in Kittery. Before coming here, I was really scared. I had seen movies about this country before, but I had never been here, so I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that going somewhere new would be difficult, but I realized it all depends on my attitude: if we come here thinking that we won’t like it, we won’t, but if we see it as an opportunity to learn and try new things, we’ll have an unforgettable experience. When I knew I was coming to Kittery, I looked at the weather, photographs and news. When the winter came, I saw it was very cold, and, at first, I was nervous because it was freezing and I wasn’t used to temperatures like that. But after talking with my future family, they told me what it was like to wake up and see everything covered with snow. They said it was the best feeling ever, and now that I’ve seen it, I can say they were definitely right.
In the last month, I have interviewed other students from Europe: Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Italy and Germany to see how their experience in America is going so far.
Two of my interviews were with Spanish exchange students Roberto and Marbore. They are both sophomores, and are staying in Texas and Ohio. They both think school here is easier than in Spain. They were surprised by the fact that students here can use their phones in school. In Roberto's American school, the teachers are also the coaches for the school teams, and that surprised him because in Spain sports are played separate from high school. They didn’t have a hard time making friends but they both agree that is difficult to be away from home for a year.
The next person that I talked with was Freja from Denmark. She is now living in Kittery, and we both study at Traip where she is a junior. Kittery reminds her of her town back home. She says everyone has been kind to her and included her, so her first impression was very positive. She said it’s weird not to see and talk to her family and friends every day. Even though she “researched” American culture before she came here, she still gets surprised by all the traditions, holidays and the gatherings, and she loves them all. She said: “Take Christmas, for an example. I am used to celebrating Christmas on December the 24th, with dinner, dancing around the Christmas tree and then presents afterwards. Here, you eat dinner and go to church on the 24th, and open presents on the 25th. It might not sound that different, but for me it is.”
Freja hasn’t found anything difficult to get used to, but the everyday life here is different than in Denmark. Here our classes take place all over the school, but in Denmark students stay in one classroom and teachers move from class to class. Here sports are connected to the school, but at home she plays sports outside school and they have no connections to it. The biggest thing she has had to get used to is having American siblings. She didn’t have any problem making new friends; everyone has been kind to her. There have been the normal social challenges, but she says it is not difficult for her. America isn’t exactly as she thought it would be, because everything she had in mind, she got it from TV shows and movies. But overall she would say it is a great experience.
While talking to the other exchange students, I realized we all had some things in common. One of the things that surprises us the most is that there is not a huge difference between grades here. We can be in class with people from other grades or simply have lunch with them. In Europe, the grades are very segregated and we are only with kids from our grades. The same happens during lunch. Here we can sit wherever we want and with whomever we want. But in my Spanish school, we sit with our class and with the same kids. Every day at lunch we sit on the same chairs and we can’t choose our food, we just have what there is and we have to eat it.
Another difference that we all agreed on was the fact that here we move from class to class, but in Europe the teachers come to the class and we stay there with the same people. What I like here is that we can choose our classes. In Europe we just have to take the classes, whether we like it or not. Another big difference is here we can bring our phones to school, but in my Spanish school, we can’t. In Spain, if teachers see a phone in our backpacks, even if it is turned off, they take it away from us until June.
Everyone that I interviewed thinks that going one year abroad is a great experience and I agree with that. Someone told me that coming here one year equals ten years of learning at home, and that I can say is true. I know I have missed a lot of things back home, but I think it has been totally worth it!
Claudia Serna is an exchange student at Traip Academy in Kittery.