HomeNewsGlobal students find home in Carmel while adjusting to cultural differences

Global students find home in Carmel while adjusting to cultural differences

Published April 4, 2023


On Margarita Soffia’s first day in the Carmel Unified School District, she was confused when she came back to her math classroom after break expecting to start her English class, only to find new students in what she believed to be her homeroom. Coming from Santiago, Chile, where the students stay in their rooms and the teachers switch after every period, school structure was just one difference the CHS freshman has learned since living in the U.S. 

“We have our own classroom that we can decorate, and we have a group of people we are always around,” says sophomore Helene Heinicke, sharing similar experiences to Soffia, even from where she grew up in northern Germany. 

It is no secret that Carmel-by-the-Sea is a place non-locals from far and wide wish to call home, but for some CHS students, the distance they traveled to settle in this Central Coast town transcends national boundaries and language barriers, requiring major lifestyle changes.

Sophomore Helene Heinicke moved to Carmel from northern Germany near Hamburg, near the Danish border. Her family plans to move back after their time in Carmel. (courtesy of HELENE HEINICKE)

Heinicke moved here for a year as her father is taking classes at the Naval Postgraduate School, and then her family plans to move back to their hometown, but even though moving here seemed intimidating at first, she is not sure if she wants to leave anymore. 

“At the beginning it was a little hard just because everything was new, and I wasn’t really feeling comfortable speaking English,” Heinicke remembers. “Not because I thought my English was bad just because I was scared.”

For sophomore Maarten Stomp, English was entirely new to him when he moved to California from Limberg, Netherlands, when he was in fifth grade. 

“I knew ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and that was it,” explains Stomp, who was able to become fluent in two to three months when he realized that if he could not adapt and learn the language, he would not be able to learn anything at his new school. 

Now, Stomp knows that even if he moves back to the Netherlands, knowing English will give him a leg-up in his business-career aspirations. The challenges presented by language differences also have pushed the Chile-raised and Spanish-speaking Soffia to pursue a subject she would not have otherwise seriously considered. 

“I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but when I came here biology in America is really hard, but I did start liking math because that was numbers,” Soffia explains. “So I didn’t have to read or anything like that because English was hard when I first moved here.” 

Aside from language, cultural and social differences added another level of adjustment for foreign students. 

Soffia grew up surrounded by family, all seven of her family members living together even through college until they got married and started a family of their own. Moving here, she noticed how separated American families can be.

Despite coming from a country where typically students pick one sport to play all school year, Margarita Soffia (center) has jumped into three CHS sports. (courtesy of MARGARITA SOFFIA)

“In my family in Chile, we are very close to each other, meaning living near and also going every Sunday to visit my grandfather and grandmother,” she says. “All my cousins are there usually, and we get lunch together.” 

Senior Greta Beesley grew up constantly celebrating holidays in her hometown of Leoben, Austria, and fondly remembers coming together with her diverse community in the town square at many points throughout the year, even to celebrate now-questionable holidays such as Dec. 5, where good children woke up to find chocolates in their boots from St. Nicholas, but bad children were subject to the threat of St. Nicholas’ evil partner Krumpus’ terrible punishments.

While coming here was an adjustment, her family ultimately decided to settle in Carmel because it offered a small-town feel comparable to Leoben, with some bonus ocean views. 

“My mother sometimes tells the story of when she and my father went to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea, and at sunset they went to the beach,” Beesley recalls, “where my mother grabbed my dad’s hand and told him, ‘We have to live here!’ and we’ve lived here ever since.”

A young Maarten Stomp in front of the famous Netherland tulip fields, whose flowers are in full bloom from mid April until early May. (courtesy of MAARTEN STOMP)

Family business is the main reason students end up in California, with the tech and agriculture industry being the most popular reasons. Stomp’s father needed experience working in a different country for this job at Driscolls, and while their plan was to originally just stay for three years, now he knows he will be able to remain in Carmel to finish high school here. After he graduates, he still plans to attend university in the Netherlands, most likely in Utrecht, a town close to Amsterdam where his older sister is currently studying. 

As of now, Soffia also sees herself attending university at home in Santiago with the rest of her family, but Beesley is in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen and plans to attend university in-state and is leaning towards California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, at the moment. 

A German university is most likely the path for Heinicke, but she has had some career plan shifts due to U.S. exposure. With a newfound love of traveling, she is now thinking of becoming a diplomat to continue exploring the world.

While moving to a new school can be difficult for international students, Stomp always remembers the Dutch phrase his father has spoken to him when times have seemed tough: “Zonder hard werk kan je geen plezier hebben,” meaning that there is no fun without hard work, a phrase that rings true when overcoming language and culture barriers in a new country. 


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