For decades, students have taken part in foreign exchange programs that allow American students to experience life in countries around the world and have brought students from the far reaches of the earth to experience life in America.
Ayusa International, a non-profit organization, has been placing students at local high schools for years, and is dedicated to giving students the opportunity for new life experiences. For more than 30 years, Ayusa has been placing international exchange students with families and is regulated by the U.S. Department of State. Donna Bell, Senior Regional Director for Ayusa worked to bring four international students to Macon, Jackson, and Swain counties this year. “I currently have under my supervision, Alberto from Spain at FHS, Joyce from Germany at Smoky Mountain High, Bernardo from Brazil at Swain High, and one fall semester student who went home the end of December, Caroline from Germany.”
Franklin High School has been host to Alberto Gonzalez Garcia, an ambitious junior from Spain. Alberto wanted to be an exchange student to visit America. Before coming to Macon County at the beginning of the school year, Alberto had never visited the United States.
“It is so much different here than in Spain,” said Alberto. “ I have really enjoyed traveling around the south and seeing different types of people and learning about the culture, but it has been a culture shock because I have never been here before.”
Franklin High School Principal Dr. Chris Baldwin believes the opportunity to host a foreign exchange student is vital to the community. “Foreign exchange student programs are important to Franklin High School and our students because they promote international understanding and global awareness,” said Baldwin. “International learning and knowledge propels students towards acceptance and understanding of an array of different cultural and community perspectives. Exchange programs also promote language acquisition through practical immersion for both Franklin High School students and our host families. Our students also gain enhanced interest in global issues as well as a broader general knowledge of the world.”
Alberto will spend one full year at Franklin High School before returning home to Spain in June. He attends classes just like any other student, and has taken both AP and honors courses. “My favorite part so far has been playing sports,” said Alberto. “In Spain, if you are good, you don't play sports for your school, you play private sports. I like being able to play them for my school here.”
Alberto played soccer, or futbol, last fall, and is currently a member of the Franklin High School tennis team. He also plays church league baseball for the church he attends with his host family, Don and Geana Capaforte.
Aside from school, Alberto said his favorite experience thus far has been attending an NFL game with his host family. “They took me to an NFL game to watch the Falcons play, it was great,” said Alberto.
According to Alberto, the greatest difference he has experienced between Spain and America is the eating schedule. “Back home we eat lunch about 2:30 p.m. and dinner around 9 p.m., it is a lot different here,” said Alberto. “We also take our time. American people are always in a rush. Here, you take 30 minutes to eat lunch. At home, we take two hours or so. We enjoy ourselves more and just take it easy.”
While he is continuing to learn from the people he has met in Franklin so far, Alberto has also been an educational tool for his fellow classmates. “When I first got here people asked me things like, ‘Do you have cars in Spain?’ ‘Do you have refrigerators?” “Do you speak Spanish?’ and ‘Is Spain in Mexico?’ So, I have been able to teach other kids a lot about Spain,” said Alberto. “At first, I joked with them and wanted to tell them we speak French and just ride horses. But I have been able to teach them just as much about where I am from as they have taught me about America.”
While leaving his family behind was difficult at first, Alberto said that the experience has taught him independence. “The biggest thing that I have learned while being here is how to be alone,” said Alberto. “Being away from my family and friends in Spain has taught me independence and I think that will help me throughout life.”
Alberto speaks to his family in Spain about once a week. “The first month it was hard to be away from them, but you get used to it,” he said. “I will be back in June, it is not like I’m staying here forever.”
The transition between Spain and America and being away from his family has been possible because of his host family, said Alberto. “My host family has been great,” he said. “I definitely can't complain. I got really lucky to have such a great family to stay with.”
Don Capaforte, his host parent, has learned a lot from Alberto. “Being a host family wasn’t something that we had ever thought about,” said Capaforte. “We were approached by Donna Bell and asked if we would consider it. As a family we discussed it with our teenage/young adult children and felt God leading us to follow through with it. The experience has been fantastic. We’ve made memories that will last a lifetime. We learn and laugh about the differences in language and customs and enjoy those things we have in common. The internet has been very helpful to bring Alberto’s home in Spain and our home closer together. We are able to communicate with his family and have grown close to his family in Spain.”
According to Capaforte, the language barrier was the first challenge he has had to overcome with Alberto. Alberto has spoken English for more than 10 years and French for four years, but just like Spanish being taught in America, it is taught differently than it is actually spoken. “The biggest differences have been food and the difference in the English language Alberto learned in Spain versus the language we actually use here in America,” said Capaforte. But Alberto is a quick learner and has grasped the idioms of the English language quickly. We laugh at how well he has learned to speak some ‘southern.’”
Just like Alberto has taught students at Franklin High School about Spain, he has also taught his host family about his home country. “Alberto has taught us a lot about Spain and their culture,” said Capaforte. “We have had the opportunity to share many holidays during his stay with us. Some holidays that both cultures celebrate and some that only we here in America celebrate and some that they celebrate in Spain that we don’t. We have shared different food recipes as well and enjoyed the different flavors that each culture has to offer.”
Host parents are responsible for providing a safe and nurturing environment for international students who come through Ayusa to study in America for a semester or the entire year. In most cases, according to Bell, Ayusa has to turn away students every year because there are more students than host families available.
Capaforte is happy with his family's decision to become host parents and feels like the program is a great resource for the community at large. “The foreign exchange program is mutually important to host families like ours and Alberto’s and to the community-atlarge in that it provides a tremendous opportunity for host families to learn that although we have many differences we still have much more in common than we think with other countries,” said Capaforte. “The program allows young people from other countries to experience America and not just read about us in a book or hear about us on television. It lets young people from other countries judge us first hand and decide for themselves what America is like. It’s important for us as Americans in that we develop a greater appreciation for the cultural diversity that we have.”
Alberto is scheduled to return to Spain in June, but both he and his host family plan to continue their relationship. “Having a foreign exchange student, and especially having Alberto, has been an enjoyable experience that will last a lifetime,” said Capaforte. “We have shared so many life experiences and he has become a part of our family and we look forward to continuing our relationship with him and his Spanish family even after he goes back to Spain.”
“I am going to miss my friends, but most of all my host family,” said Alberto. “I hope to stay in contact with them. I even hope to see them again if I come back for college.”
Bell believes that the experience like the one Alberto and the Capafortes have had, is the reason why the foreign exchange program is so important to the community.
“To me it is so important because you have a true opportunity to make a difference in a child's life," said Bell. "I feel one of the most rewarding benefits is to be a part of a wonderful growth process for a child who is brave enough to trust a family they have never met, fly half way across the world to live with them. The host family will watch them walk off the plane a scared and somewhat bewildered child and through their experiences with their host family they are walk back on the plane to go home as a confident and mature young adult.”
Dr. Baldwin noted that Alberto has been a great asset to the school and the Franklin community. “Franklin High School has benefited greatly from hosting Alberto and other exchange students,” said Dr. Baldwin. “Alberto has been unique in that he has fit in extremely well here at FHS. He is very intelligent and personable. I was especially pleased to see Alberto come out for the Panther soccer team.”
Before visiting the United States, Alberto had planned to attend college in Europe, where it would be free. “Now that I have seen American universities, I would like to come back to go to college here,” said Alberto. “I am pretty good at tennis and hope that maybe I can get a scholarship to play in college here in America.”
Alberto plans to continue working with tennis and pursue a scholarship to play at the collegiate level, either as a traditional student, or in a college foreign exchange program. Because his home in Spain is 10 minutes from the beach, he would like to to attend a college on the coast where he plans to study chemical engineering.