GAYLORD ― First impressions are important.
It’s a cliche that most can agree with, but for a student at Gaylord High School, first impressions have meant everything.
Hector Gea Lozano arrived in the United States as a foreign exchange student back on August 11. And in a little over a month, the Madrid native has made his first impressions count, becoming a key member of the Blue Devils soccer team, winning the school’s Homecoming King and, at his coach’s suggestion, is now eyeing potentially staying in Michigan to play soccer at the collegiate level.
Hector has left a positive impression on the Gaylord community very quickly, and he says the feeling has been mutual, ever since he got off the plane.
“It felt like I was in a movie, just like I imagined with everyone in my host family waiting for me with a sign,” Hector said.
The foreign exchange process
Hector Gea Lozano is from Madrid, Spain, where he lives with his parents and his 15-year-old sister, Sara.
He says coming to the United States has been a dream of his since he was young. Friends in Spain who had been foreign exchange students shared their experiences with him, and with the abundance of organizations that run the exchange programs, he decided to submit an application.
However, getting into the United States wasn’t a smooth process. Hector’s first application process was halted after international travel was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The second time he applied, no host family selected him.
The third time, however, Nichole Soderquist and her family were looking.
“My husband and I have always tossed around the idea of being a host family but never had the ‘yes let’s do this’ moment,” Soderquist said. “Matt was contacted by a family member of his childhood friend in early summer telling him she was a regional coordinator for one the exchange programs and asked if we would be interested in hosting because there are so many kids who have not been able to be placed with a family.”
After doing some research and discussing the idea with their five teenage children, they were all in.
The next step was to pick a student to host, and the first application they saw was Hector’s.
“Hector’s profile was the very first profile we read, followed by 15-plus more, and we always went back to wanting to host for Hector,” Soderquist said.
Hector didn’t know anything about Gaylord or Northern Michigan outside of his Google searches but says while things are different from what he’s used to in Spain, he has loved becoming part of the community.
“It has been so good. I love my host family,” Hector said. “I am very comfortable and truly feel like part of the family with five additional siblings. At school, everyone is so nice, and I am making a lot of friends. Everyone wants to know how I am and just more about me, it is so different than in Spain.”
Soderquist said the feeling has been mutual.
“I felt like our family already had a connection with Hector prior to his arrival, we basically communicated daily since he decided to come join our family,” Soderquist said. “He is continuing to adapt but he wants to try everything to get the true American experience whether it’s food or new adventures.”
Joining the Blue Devils family
As Hector’s host parents, Soderquist and her husband are only responsible for feeding him three times a day and providing a roof over his head. Everything else, from how he spends his free time to extra expenses to everything in between is up to the student.
Before Hector got to Michigan, there was little question about what he would be doing with his free time.
“I love soccer and I wanted to play a sport during my time in Gaylord, so it was not a difficult decision to make,” Hector said. “When I don’t play soccer for a few days, I miss it.”
Soderquist knew of Hector’s interest in playing soccer and contacted Blue Devils head coach Brandon Contreras to work out the logistics.
There was one problem; the high school season started in early August, with the first scrimmage scheduled for August 13, and Hector wasn’t scheduled to arrive until later that month. Even with some bumped-up plans, he still didn’t arrive until a week before the team’s season opener.
That didn’t leave much time for Hector to learn his new team and how they play, but it really didn’t matter.
The team welcomed Hector with open arms, and despite a bit of a difference in rules from Spanish to American soccer, he began to perform at a high level right away.
By the time the home opener against Boyne City rolled around on August 25, Hector was already becoming a star, scoring two of the four goals in a 4-1 victory. That has only continued as he has become one of the team’s leaders this season.
Part of his success has been a connection he has developed with fellow senior and forward Charlie Holscher, the team’s leader in goals and assists.
“It’s awesome because with Hector coming from Spain, he’s a great player but sometimes it’s tough when you don’t know anybody, but him and Charlie have really combined well and developed a great relationship in a short amount of time,” head coach Brandon Contreras said.
“It is like we talk the same language on the field. It felt very natural,” Hector said. “Charlie is a really good player, and he is a great friend too.”
Crowning a King, plans to stay?
If the impact has left on the Gaylord community in his short time here was in doubt, those doubts were squashed when Hector was named to the Class of 2023 Homecoming Court despite knowing his classmates for less than a month.
It was surprising for Hector, not just because he was the new kid, but because the concept of Homecoming was brand new to him.
“I did not know what homecoming court was or much about anything that was going on that week other than dressing up funny during spirit week, a football game, and a dance,” Hector said. “My host sister, Kaylee and cousin Chloe had to explain everything to me.”
It wasn’t a total shock to Soderquist that he was named to Homecoming Court, seeing as he had become a favorite among his classmates very quickly. It was shocking, however, when he was named king.
“I was honestly quite surprised. I knew Hector was a favorite to many students just because he has that personality everyone loves so I was not as surprised that he was selected to be on Homecoming Court but being named king was jaw-dropping,” Soderquist said. “That moment is definitely going to be one of the many great memories he will have of his time in Gaylord.”
And if the impact Gaylord has left on Hector was in doubt, he is now looking into possible options to stay in the United States to study and play soccer in college.
“When I initially came to Michigan, I did not know if it would even be a possibility for me to stay here and go to college. The plan was to complete my schooling here and then go back to Spain to college,” Hector said. “My dream is to study a career I like and earn a scholarship to play the sport that I love at the same time in the United States, so it seems surreal that it could possibly happen.”
To anyone who has watched him play, the talent is clearly there, but the idea hadn’t even crossed Hector’s mind until coach Contreras approached him with the idea of putting together a highlight reel.
“I never thought I was good enough to play soccer at the college level because in Spain it is so different, but everyone here says I am really good. When Coach Brandon told me to think about making a video of me playing soccer to possibly be able to play in college, I was so surprised,” Hector said.
Hector’s parents in Spain are open to the idea, but they want him to figure out his career plans first before thinking about soccer. He says he is still undecided but wants to go into healthcare.
The next step is gathering his clips and getting in contact with potential coaches. Hector says he doesn’t have any preferences for a school as of now, but believes his experience, abilities and skills with the ball bring something special to a team that wants him.
Hopefully, he can leave a lasting first impression on his future coaches and teammates as well.