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Exchange students adjust to life on American soil

“Americans eat everywhere.” horizontal_exchangestudents

This is one interesting observation, among many, from Italian exchange student Mariagrazia Filomena, who came to the United States earlier this year, courtesy of the American Field Service intercultural program. And Mariagrazia, enrolled as a junior, is not the only new student at CHS with a history of living in Europe.

Every year CHS hosts several students from around the world, many of whom come from Europe. This year in particular, the spotlight shines on three girls: senior Emma Descamps of France, sophomore Madeleine Panholzer of Austria and the aforementioned Filomena of Italy.

Despite encountering many foreign concepts and temporarily leaving their homes behind, the three girls are glad to have come here.

“Everyone should do some exchange program,” Filomena says. “AFS can open your mind and make your life better.”

Keep in mind that this is a predominantly Italian-speaking girl who had no former knowledge of English when she arrived in America. How did she manage to grasp the language?

“Listening,” Filomena explains. “Americans speak very fast…at first I was like, ‘Oh My God, I don’t understand anything.’”

Judging by Filomena’s excellent English, this ability has improved. She may be the only one of the three to arrive in America without previous exposure to English, but the journey certainly wasn’t easy for Emma Descamps as she made her voyage from France to the U.S.

“I wanted to be bilingual,” Descamps explains. “I wanted to become a part of this country.”

As Descamps settled into an American home, fortunate enough to have already learned some English, she too recognized the difficulties of living in a foreign place.

“You can only come by yourself, so you can only count on yourself,” she says. The worst part, though? “You don’t have that much affection. You don’t have your family to hug and kiss.”

This is unimaginable for an exchange student who has not experienced school in another country before. But for Madeleine Panholzer, America is a familiar place.

Born in San Francisco, Panholzer had always been accustomed to the U.S. –and more specifically, to California. With her cousin Shoopie Panholzer also attending CHS, she had little to fear about coming back to the States.

“We come and visit every two years,” says Madeleine, a regular here in America. When she arrived this time, she had already planned to stay with her cousin in what she calls “a private exchange.”

“I wanted to spend a year here with my cousin,” Panholzer explains. “I thought it would be way more difficult. I don’t feel homesick. I see America as my second home.”

Perhaps what shocked each girl the most was CHS itself, with its quirky dress-up days and classes so unlike those in Europe. Descamps discovered quite a few oddities in her first days, namely “the way the kids are with their phones and always eating food in class…and they take pictures of the teacher.”

This isn’t all that strikes a European student as strange. Here, says Filomena, school is not as difficult as it is in Italy.

France has quite a different policy as well.

“In France, you’d better hide your phone,” Descamps warns. “They take your phone and give it back to you after class.”

One thing the girls enjoy most about living in America is witnessing the spirit and spontaneity of the CHS students.

During a spirit week, Mariagrazia says, “Every day [this week] is something different…[today] everybody is wearing pajamas.”

Of other perplexing dress habits, Filomena describes one she has seen often: “It’s a cold day and [girls are] wearing shorts with a big sweater and flip-flops.”

What else do these girls note about America?

“I love the ocean because we don’t have one in Austria, but I miss the snow,” Panholzer says. “It’s very different, but I’m glad I did it. Everyone’s been super nice.”

For Descamps, the extra time allotted for playing sports is a favorite. A typical day in Europe allows much less time for these extracurricular activities.

As for Filomena, she cannot pick one specific thing. “I love the place,” she says. “It’s an amazing place.  My host mom is single…. She is so fun!”

Is travelling abroad for a year worth it? The girls weigh in.

Filomena, who was sent to the U.S. with no prior language experience, has a few wise words of the process. “It’s a good experience, but you have to be strong,” she warns.

After travelling many times across the world, Panholzer is definitely an expert on foreign matters.

“I would definitely recommend going to another country,” Panholzer says. “It changes you in such a good way. It’s a unique experience.”






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