Foreign exchange students find themselves at home in Rexburg
REXBURG — A rodeo cowgirl. A soccer player. A female wrestler. A theater tech. A woodworker. A volleyball player. Their interests are wide and varied, but one thing they have in common is that each of these high schoolers took a chance on living in the U.S. for a year.
They came from all over the globe, including from Bolivia, Italy, Spain and Germany, to take part in an exchange student program offered by SHARE! High School Exchange Program.
The teenagers were strangers to their host families when they arrived in the States less than a year ago, but today many of them feel like part of the family — and the feeling is mutual.
Chrissi Goeppel, 16, came to the U.S. from her hometown of about 85 people in Kaudorf, Germany. Goeppel hopped off the plane and onto a horse, beginning her 10-month rodeo career on day one of her stay with her host family.
“Her plane came in while I was at the rodeo with my daughter,” says Goeppel’s host mother, Dee Dee Tucker of Rexburg. “I just told her she was entered.”
Goeppel took to the rodeo right from the start and has enjoyed competing throughout her stay. She even competed in a rodeo queen competition, earning herself her very own belt buckle at the Whoopee Days Rodeo in Rexburg in July.
Her interest in rural life doesn’t stop at rodeo. Goeppel speaks enthusiastically of her time at Madison High School, and especially the relationships she built with students and teachers in the agriculture department, saying she spends all her time “in the ag building.”
“I love it out there,” she says. “I love the teachers.”
Goeppel, who was already an experienced horse rider before coming to Rexburg, found a great fit with the Tuckers, her host family. She’s become such a part of the family that no one is phased when she speaks of her host family’s relatives as her own. Cousins, Grandma and Grandpa, aunts and uncles — they’re all hers now.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna live without Addie (her host sister) and you guys and the rodeo,” Goeppel says to Tucker as she prepares to return to Germany.
Miguel Angel Achá Boiano is a 17-year-old soccer player from Bolivia. He decided to come to the U.S. to improve his English. He hopes the skill will help him in his future professional pursuits. Right now, he thinks he’d like to be a programmer or some kind of engineer.
Boiano says he didn’t have many expectations about living in the U.S., but it was a big change coming from a city with millions of people to small-town Idaho.
His host mother, Deidra Smith of Rexburg, says this was the first time the family had hosted an exchange student. They considered it first because her oldest kid asked if they could do it.
“We read (Boiano’s) profile, and it just felt right,” Smith said. “And he has been an awesome kid. Miguel is so responsible and helpful.”
Smith says her family is a “soccer family,” and that having Boiano in their home for the school year has been a great experience for the whole family.
“I think he has bonded with all of the kids in different ways,” Smith says.
Another perk of having an exchange student, according to Smith, is the exposure to another culture without the hassle of leaving home.
“You get to travel without leaving the comfort of your own home,” Smith says.
“The only rule that I had when coming here was, never say no to a new experience.”
Valentina Susanni, 17, from Milan, Italy, wanted to come to the United States to have the American high school experience, and she jumped in with both feet. She ran cross country and track and was one of a handful of girls on the Madison High School wrestling team.
Her host mother, Becky Greene of Rexburg, says this was her third time hosting an exchange student. The Greenes had previously hosted Italians twice and were considering inviting someone from another country this time.
“But we saw Valentina’s (profile), and every person in the family was like, ‘That’s the one,’” Greene said.
In Greene’s experience, exchange students are eager to be involved in their schools and communities.
“Each one, they involve themselves,” Greene says. “They jump in and they’re outgoing. They really put themselves in without holdbacks.”
Susanni fits that description to a T. She says, “The only rule that I had when coming here was, never say no to a new experience.”
Adriana Fernandez, 15, of Madrid, wanted to find out if the things she’d learned about life in America were true.
“I just wanted to see if it was actually like the movies,” she says.
But not everything was like the movies.
“No one uses their lockers and people are nicer,” Fernandez says.
Host mom Hydee Graybill of Rexburg says the best parts of having Fernandez in her home for the last year were the friendships made with her children and experiencing things in a new way.
“It was fun to see and experience things through her eyes,” Graybill says. “It was fun to get to know her culture.”
Leonardo Ferroni, 17, of Pisa, Italy, says the growth in his English skills will help him get a good job when he returns home.
“I live in a city that is based in tourism,” he says. “My knowledge of English has really improved, so I can easily find a job near the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
Because he didn’t know English very well when he arrived, Ferroni was hesitant to jump into social situations at first and he swore he’d never attend a school dance. But as soon as he started to feel more comfortable speaking and making friends, “he bought a suit and he’s been to three (dances),” says his host mom, Emi Flamm.
Ferroni says he has loved the differences he has found in his American school compared to his Italian school. He loves having access to a gym at school and the “diversity of classes.” While attending Madison High School, he has taken classes in food and nutrition, photography, power training, Excel, and woodworking (where he made his host family a beautiful wooden checkerboard).
Like other exchange students, he has even chosen to take Latter-day Saint seminary classes, even though he’s not a member of the church.
Ferroni says he has enjoyed participating with his host family in their holiday traditions and going along on family adventures — especially to Hawaii.
“They brought me to Hawaii!” he says. “It was real, and it was amazing.”
When asked if he planned to return to Rexburg someday, Ferroni responds with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and a fistbump to his host brother Jarum.
SHARE! Coordinator Tracy Barney says she loves observing how the exchange students become like family during their 10-month stay. She’s working on matching up host families and exchange students for the coming 2022-2023 school year.