Exchange students navigate life away from home

March 10, 2020 — by Vicky Bai and Preston Fu

Junior Aitana Abad-Portuondo is a foreign exchange student from Bilbao, Spain, some 5,800 miles from Saratoga. 

She arrived in the U.S. earlier in the year with some knowledge of spoken English (she started learning it informally at age 3) but little practice with academic English. Fortunately, teachers quickly realized her struggles and began to offer her after-school assistance and more time to do homework.

“The teachers are nicer here and more willing to help,” Abad-Portuondo said. “In Spain, you just read and study.”

Abad-Portuondo decided to come to America to strengthen her English, immerse herself in American culture and meet new people. 

To get this opportunity, Abad-Portuondo had to apply to the exchange program at her school and pass the English tests that the school uses to ensure students will be able to effectively communicate here. Even after passing the tests, students are asked by exchange agencies to write letters to help host families choose a student based on their hobbies and personalities. 

“Luckily, I got paired with my parents’ friends. They are now my host family, so this made the sudden transition much easier,” Abad-Portuondo said.

Even though officials say the school usually receives fewer than three foreign exchange students each year, Abad-Portuondo noted that it is common for students at her old school to study abroad. Even within her tight friend group in Spain, two of her friends have undergone the foreign exchange process — one to Minnesota last year and another to Indiana this year.

At first, Abad-Portuondo’s parents did not want her to spend the year abroad and away from them. 

“I managed to convince them when they understood it was very important for my academics and personal growth,” she said. 

She noted that aside from a more lecture-based teaching style, the Spanish secondary school system is also quite different from that of the U.S. There, high school begins in seventh grade and lasts six years compared to the four here. Students dedicate their last two years to exploring their future major and career path, only taking courses in those subjects to perform well on university entrance exams.

Abad-Portuondo said that in Spain, students are not given enough time to decide their future path. For instance, many of her friends ended up going into science despite having little interest in the field.

Junior Monica Delgado, who attended Saratoga last year but has since returned home to Colegio Base High School in Madrid, Spain, felt the same way. She also noted that unlike in Spain, American schools offer more interesting elective courses.

“I enjoyed that I got the ‘high school experience’ because the student population felt more unified at all of the different events,” said Delgado.

Although the exchange process cost her family $10,000, Delgado felt that it was ultimately worth it, as she learned to gain confidence and explore more courses. 

In Spain, not only is course selection more limited, but in-school activities such as clubs. Any non-studying activities must be done outside of school. Abad-Portuondo, who plays piano and swims, said that her school in Spain has neither an orchestra nor a swim team.

“Saratoga is like a family with its dances, rallies and sports teams,” Abad-Portuondo said. “Everyone is supportive and has school spirit, but we don’t have that in Spain. You just go to your classes, and people want to get out as soon as possible.”

However, Delgado pointed out one downside of living in the U.S.: a lack of public transportation. In Spain, she usually travels by bus or subway, but she was shocked to find out that the train ride to last year’s Homecoming game at Levi’s Stadium in nearby Santa Clara took two hours. Nonetheless, she felt lucky to have joined the exchange program at her school.

“I miss a lot of the people I met, especially my host family. Saratoga is very far away from Spain, and it’s hard to keep in touch with everyone,” Delgado said. “Although things have changed since I left, it was not hard to adapt back to life in Spain. Everything is back to normal.”

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