Sofia Garcia de La Cuadra joins Saratoga for year-long study abroad experience

September 17, 2016 — by Caitlin Ju

Spanish exchange studnt spends a year in Saratoga High School. 

Feeling lost and not confident in her ability to speak English, Sofia Garcia de La Cuadra of Spain stood in the airport in Texas this past summer waiting for her connecting flight to San Jose and immediately thought that she had made a mistake coming to America.

Her first impression of America, an experience she compares to feeling “blind,” quickly shifted to excitement when she met her Saratoga host family, the Fuldes, on Aug. 11.

In the next few weeks Garcia began to adjust, with the help of her host family’s Spanish knowledge, to life in Saratoga and away from her home in Valencia, Spain, where she had lived her whole life.

“At the beginning, it was a bit strange, because the food, the house and the language were different,” said Garcia, who is a junior. “But my host brother, who is five years [younger], reminded me of my own younger brothers, who are one and four years [younger]. Their characters are so similar.”

The Fuldes took Garcia on family trips to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and the Monterey Aquarium and also to San Francisco. Her favorite memories included roasting marshmallows at a bonfire on the beach, playing tennis with her host family and watching the sea lions at the coast. Garcia also watched the movie “Secret Life of Pets” with her host brother but found the speed of the language hard to follow.

Though Garcia found small differences between life with the Fuldes and in Valencia, Garcia welcomed the changes.

“I was surprised by the large distance between places, like the supermarket, and here for the transportation you have to depend on driving or someone else, whereas in Valencia, there are buses everywhere,” Garcia said. “Everything is very centralized in Valencia, and the amusement parks are right in the city.”

Last year, when her mother, who owned an academy that sends students to study abroad, asked her if she wanted to study in America for a year, Garcia immediately said yes.

“The movies gave me the idea that I should come to America out of all the countries,” Garcia said. “When I watch all the Hollywood movies, like High School Musical, I [wanted] to be like the main characters in them.”

Though only some elements of the movies, such as cheerleaders and dances, are accurate, Garcia said she still sees in Saratoga the lively atmosphere she admired in the movies.

The International Student Exchange (ISE) sent Garcia to Saratoga on a J-1 visa, which is for study-based exchange visitor programs, meaning her parents cannot visit her and she cannot return to Spain until the last month of school.

“Maybe in one month when I am in reality, I will become homesick,” Garcia said. “For now, it still feels like I’m on a holiday, like when you go on vacation to another country.”

In Valencia, Garcia attended the Catholic school Colegio Nuestra Señora del Pilar since preschool, where she found cliques to be a major problem.

“If you’re new and want to be in a group, it’s impossible,” Garcia said. “The people at my school aren’t very helpful in making the new people feel comfortable. Here, I am making new friends all the time, and the people are very helpful and don’t just ignore or exclude me.”

Another difference is the food, particularly the rice which she describes as having a sweeter flavor here. She also remembers the surprise of eating lunch at noon, whereas before she would have lunch at 3 p.m. and dinner at 11 p.m.

One of her main pursuits that she is excited to continue is basketball, the only girls’ sports team her school had in Valencia. Garcia originally joined the basketball team because of her 6-foot height, playing as both the center and power forward.  

“Basketball is my life,” she said. “If I don’t have basketball, I’m not me. I’ve been playing basketball since I was seven years old.”

Garcia also finds that being able to choose the classes she can take at Saratoga, such as drama and French, is a positive difference from her school in Spain.

Drama teacher Sarah Thermond, who teaches Garcia in Drama I, has valued her enthusiasm and thoughtfulness.

“[Garcia’s] one of the most confident about participating and really kind to other students,” Thermond said. “I’ve noticed if a student is struggling or seems nervous, she’s always one of the first to offer them a suggestion or support.”

Garcia also chose to take Anatomy and Physiology to explore her future career interest, a path she chose mainly because of the challenge it presented.

“I want to study something related to health and help rehabilitate people, so I found physiotherapy especially interesting to me,” she said.

Garcia has not yet decided if she will stay in the U.S. to go to college next year or study abroad in Canada, but she already sees herself becoming fluent at English and expanding her view of the world.

“I hope I make a lot of friends who I can visit over the summer and learn a lot of values different from the things I did all the time back in Spain,” Garcia said. “For me, language is all, and I can already hear myself getting better.”