Coming to, and leaving, America

The Capital (Annapolis, MD), September 25, 2007, page B1
By: Elisabeth Hulette


Side by side, Amy Sweat, 15, a junior at South River High School, doesn’t look at all like Adriana Bazaga, 16, her exchange student “sister” from Spain.

But dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt, her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, Amy said she found something in common with Adriana, clad in skintight plaid and black leggings, her long brown hair styled in waves.

They both play the piano, and they both speak Spanish and English. And for the past three weeks, they have shared a family and a school as Adriana visited Crofton through an exchange program.

“She tells stories about her village,” Amy said. “Without actually going to Spain, I learned a lot about the culture.”

Adriana was one of 28 Spanish exchange students who said goodbye to their host families at a farewell party last night at South River High School.

They came here on academic scholarships from the Caja De Extremadura bank in Extremadura, a region in southwest Spain. Their three-week trip was coordinated by the Severna Park-based Intercultural Friends Foundation and Spanish Heritage, an exchange program that has been bringing Spanish students to the area for 18 years.

Joann Smith, a coordinator for the Intercultural Friends Foundation, gets the program rolling every year by asking families at South River if they’d like to host an exchange student.

“From the moment they walk in the door, they’re not strangers anymore,” said Vicky Arechaga, academic director of Spanish Heritage in the United States.

The organization runs similar exchanges in countries like Ireland and England, where students pay to live at a boarding house, she said. But the students who come to South

River get a different experience because their hosts volunteer to take them in.

“When somebody does it as a volunteer, what do they want? Just to know someone from a different country,” Ms. Arechaga said.

The students are not guests, she said. Rather, they do chores with their host siblings and for three weeks become members of their host families.

“It’s a totally different experience” from the America they would see as tourists, she said.

The Spanish students spent 61/2 days shadowing their American host students at South River. They spent the rest of the time on trips to monuments and museums in Washington, Baltimore’s inner harbor, the Harley Davidson factory and Arundel Mills mall.

Shopping was one of the best parts of the trip for Adriana – who discovered the teen clothing store Hot Topic – and Cristina Garcia, 16, and her host sister, Katrina Mayes, 16.

Hosting an exchange student “expands your horizons,” Katrina said, adding that she hopes to go visit Cristina in Spain next summer. “I’ve got plans for that one,” she said to Cristina.

Ms. Smith said connections made during the three weeks sometimes continue long after the exchange, citing Marian Cabezas-Shrewsberry, a part-time Spanish teacher at South River, as an example.

Ms. Cabezas-Shrewsberry was chaperone for the Spanish Heritage exchange to Maryland in 2000 and 2001. She took a job teaching Spanish in Prince George’s County in 2001 to continue learning English, then married an American and settled in the area.

The Spanish students need to learn English, and the exchange is a great way for them to get practice, she said.

“But if the bank didn’t give them the opportunity, they probably wouldn’t get here,” Ms. Cabezas-Shrewsberry said.

The students will leave for the airport tomorrow with tears in their eyes, as happens every year, Ms. Arechaga said. They also will leave with a better understanding different cultures, she said.

“It is the only way we can understand other people,” she said.

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