Matilde Sardi was in a café in Italy on Aug. 17 when the call came.
Could she be ready to come to the United States the next week and stay for the school year?
The 17-year-old burst into tears.
“It was one of the best moments of my life,” Sardi recalls. “Seriously. I couldn’t have been more happy, I had my visa and placement, and on the 24th of August, I had the flight and was here.”
“Here” is Lakeland High School in the Huron Valley School District, where she is experiencing a year that would have been unique as a foreign exchange student, but in a pandemic, has become even more surreal.
Sardi is not the only foreign exchange student at Lakeland this year. Lucia Serrano, a 16-year-old from Madrid, Spain, also scored a spot.
“I was worried because I wasn’t sure I would be able to come,” Serrano said. “The borders in Spain were closed from April until July. During the beginning of the pandemic, things in Spain were really bad, we couldn’t leave the houses, even going for a walk. Only one person could go for groceries.”
The girls were fortunate to find not only families willing to host them, but a school willing to accept the responsibility to educate them in a school year that has been anything but normal.
Cassandra Ross, field manager for International Cultural Exchange Services, said the pandemic has definitely affected the ability of the agency to place students.
ICES, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year of placing foreign exchange students ages 14-18 in homes and schools across the United States and also has an outbound program to send American students overseas, has had many students drop completely from the program or postpone their exchange year.
One of the “really big” issues Ross said the agency encountered is reluctance from individual schools to accept students from whom they fear the virus could spread or for whom they can’t provide a “normal” school experience they feel the exchange students deserve.
“It’s really a bummer for students when you have a host family that is willing but the school is not,” Ross said, expressing concern that non-acceptance is extending into this coming fall. “It would haven been the same (odd school experience) in their home countries. For some, this is a one-time opportunity, they only have one chance. And if they can’t come, they miss out and that is unfortunate.”
Life in America vs. Europe
Lucia Serrano is finding life in rural northwest Oakland County a sharp contrast to Madrid, Spain’s capital city founded in the 9th century and home to nearly 3.5 million people.
She lives in an apartment there and is accustomed to walking 10 minutes to get to school and uses public transportation for other destinations. Here, where “everything is much bigger,” she notes it takes 20 minutes to go somewhere by car and friends don’t hang out in the middle of the street together like they do in Spain, but hang out in houses.
She is enjoying nature and the vast amount of trees and wildlife that is different from Spain, with deer and raccoons, animals she has not seen before.
The school days at Lakeland are also a far cry from Spain and Italy, pandemic or not.
Sardi, who is from Villasanta, a small town in northern Italy about a half-hour from Milan, notes that in her country, students choose from three different types of secondary schools that will direct a course for post-graduation: science, language or work and how to study for university.
“Here you can do pottery in high school, economics and stuff like that,” she said. “In Italy, it’s a field… The teachers here are nicer; they are so nice. They make you feel comfortable and they ask about you and if you need help. It’s a different approach here, they don’t force you to study, they create different ways to make you learn.”
In Madrid, Serrano notes, the alarm doesn’t go off so early, meals aren’t eaten at school, and classes are harder, more limited and with the same students.
At her Spanish school, Serrano takes more core classes, physics and chemistry and biology, geography and history, English, Spanish, math, religion, philosophy and sports. Depending on the year, one or two change.
What doesn’t change are her classmates or that lunch is at 3 p.m. everyday, at home after school ends at 2.
She is trying a lot of new food, including a variety of salads and enchiladas, and said she has learned how to make tamales.
Food here has also made an impression on Sardi, whose favorite dish so far has been clam chowder. She said the American notion of what is Italian food “is not, actually.”
“Every American thinks pasta and meatballs is 100 percent Italian. No, no, no,” Sardi says adamantly. “It’s good, but it’s not Italian. We have a sauce, but there is not just meatballs in it.”
Both Sardi and Serrano are enjoying meeting a lot of really nice people, and improving their English skills.
“I am trying new food and new things and activities I would never do if I was in Spain,” Serrano said. “I am going on a lot of hikes, my host mom (Agnes) and me like to go on a lot of hikes to Kensington…There are a lot of things I am not able to do because of the pandemic, but I’m always doing things. Even though there are some things I can’t do, there are a lot of things I can.”
Snow is new to her and she has enjoyed it, including ice skating on the lake. In Madrid, there is no snow and soccer is played from September to June. She is looking forward to trying out for the Lakeland soccer team this month and visiting some different states during a spring break trip to Florida.
But she is glad she ended up in Michigan, a state she calls beautiful, and she has grown in her independence.
“In Spain, my mom did everything for me, but now I have learned to do things by myself,” she said. “I think it is a whole experience and everyone should come and do this.”
Sardi, who pre-pandemic was destined for Utah by her placement agency, the Aspect Foundation, agrees.
She had been planning to study abroad for the past four years and while the pandemic nearly destroyed her hope and altered her experience, she views this historic global time as an integral part of this year in her life.
“You have to adapt to a new culture, people, place, the weather,” she said. “To grow personally, and to become more independent and be able to put yourself out there, starting from zero. It was bad timing with the pandemic. I am not saying it could have been better, but it’s different. It’s like another kind of lesson, a personal lesson.”
Both girls will return to Europe this summer, hoping, like all the world, that the pandemic is easing as vaccines reach all corners of the globe. But as they do, their views will have been broadened and they will remember with gratitude to their school and their host families, this past year as not only the one in which the world suffered a pandemic and doors were closed, but one in which they gained a broader view.
“I feel lucky, even more lucky that I was able to do this,” Sardi said. “It seems obvious, but I’ve learned that life is one, and every chance that presents to you, you should take it, and maybe you won’t have another chance to do that. Everything can always teach you something, you don’t have to be scared to put yourself out there and do something that is not in your comfort zone. You just have to live it.”
Ross is hopeful that with the lifting of restrictions, she can bring more students from overseas into Oakland County schools and homes this coming fall, with learning occurring all around.
To learn more about how to host a student or to study abroad, visit www.icesusa.org