Students Exchange Knowledge and Culture

Students around the world are taking pieces of Colorado home with them and leaving a bit of their own culture behind in high schools throughout St. Vrain Valley Schools.

During the past five years, about 180 students from across the globe have participated in the foreign exchange student program that brings international students to district high schools to learn about American culture and share information about their home countries with local students.

“It allows students who have maybe never left the U.S. before to see how things are done in other countries and really opens their minds to what else is out there,” said Debbie Odom, who supports foreign students.

Italian exchange student Matilde Monni, 17, has been attending Longmont High School as a junior since August.

“I was bored of always the same routine. I wanted to live something different,” Matilde said about why she chose to study abroad. “Then there was my wish to become independent and responsible, I really wanted to consider myself an adult.”

Learning from each other

Some of the cultural differences are glaring, she said, like the cost of college and the healthcare system, which she said is “messier than what I expected.” Matilde said she is impressed by the “great sense of patriotism” she has experienced in America.

“Students learn tremendously from foreign exchange students, said Rick Olsen, principal of Longmont High. “When our students become acquainted or befriend an exchange student, they then become curious. They begin to learn about the exchange student’s culture, where they are from geographically, the region they are from, what their school is like, what they do for fun, and basically what it is like to grow up in their country.”

And Matilde is educating local students about Italy through presentations to schools and discussions with her classmates. She gave several presentations to her U.S. Government class on Italian parliament, recent elections, rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered citizens and higher education.

“I think it is important for American students to learn about other countries to see how big and varied this world is,” Matilde said. “Then I think that knowing about different cultures, as well as traveling, keeps you humble and opens your mind, fundamental things to be a good world citizen.”

Matilde hopes Colorado students will learn that Italy has the most United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sites in the world, and that Alfredo sauce is an American invention.

“It is not Italian,” she said. “I'm sorry.” Matilde is living with a host family of five, including a 5-year-old girl, a 3-year-old boy, and a nearly 1-year-old boy whom she adores. The family takes her on outdoor adventures and taught her how to ski, which Matilde said has been her favorite experience in Colorado so far.

Academics and Activities

St. Vrain is proud to host foreign exchange students at many of our high schools. Students who are placed in our high schools are exposed to the same experiences as our traditional students. They enroll in the same rigorous courses, participate in athletics and co-curricular activities, and they join pep rallies, dances and other school events.

Olsen explained that it is an extremely valuable experience because exchange students and our students are learning from each other about the different regions in the world, the different types of government sand how different countries educate their students.

School counseling offices work with the students on their first few days to ensure that they are placed in the correct level of classes, they are typically assigned a classmate who helps them navigate the building and most attend the new student orientation at the beginning of the year. One of the most notable differences is the many opportunities that St. Vrain offers to all of our students through co-curricular activities and athletics. Many foreign students cannot believe the sense of school pride and community that is built through these experiences.

Students typically arrive in August and spend the academic year with us. When they are here, they just become one of our students and they have access to the same opportunities as all of our other students.

Challenges and Rewards

The language barrier and busy schedules of American students have been the biggest hurdle to making friends in Colorado for Jens Oliver Popa, who came from Germany to study at Mead High School.

In Germany, Jens spends most weekends with friends and around backyard campfires, he said. Jens talked about his weekends and time with friends during presentations to St. Vrain students about Germany and how American students are often busy playing sports or attending school-sponsored activities, which makes it challenging to find free time to hang out.

Jens showed his American classmates photos of his village, like the church, bakery, and grocery store, and talked about culture and education through his personal experiences with friends.

German schools do not typically offer athletics, and “I can't remember that I ever went to a school event in Germany, without being forced,” Jens said.

“It's in my eyes important for my classmates to learn more about our country as well as other foreign countries, because they need to know that things are different in cultural and very traditional aspects outside of the United States,” Jens said.

Jens still enjoys his free time in Colorado, which is mostly spent mountain biking with his host family.

Despite the challenges, including being homesick, Matilde and Jens said they have enjoyed their experience and would recommend it to other students who are interested in other cultures.

If you are interested in becoming a host family please contact your local high school or contact our list of board approved organizations that can place students in our high schools. Board Policy: JFABB-E