Three students from overseas have stepped into American classrooms in Yakima for the first time.
The students are part of an international exchange program for youths coordinated through Yakima’s three Rotary clubs. For the next nine to 10 months, the students will attend local schools, experience local culture and make a few lifelong American friends.
Franceso Napoleone, 16, from Turin in northern Italy, will be a senior at Eisenhower High School. Romane de Sacco, 18, from Liège in Belgium, will be a senior at West Valley High School. And Guilherme Santos Fernandes, 17, from Lauro de Freitas in the state of Bahia in Brazil, will be a senior at Eisenhower.
For students arriving in the United States, called “inbounds,” and local youths who leave for overseas destinations, called “outbounds,” the experience is a window into a wider world.
“It’s our small way to teach tolerance, acceptance and a world perspective,” said Jheri Ketcham, a youth exchange officer for Downtown Yakima Rotary Club.
The three newest arrivals were excited to share a small part of their journeys, so far, with the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Excited may be an understatement.
“This will be in the newspaper?” Francesco exclaimed in perfect English, his eyes bright, his head cocked to one side. “I’ve never been in a newspaper before!”
Francesco first heard of the Rotary exchange program through his parents, who are part of Italy’s 2031 Rotary, and from a friend who came back from travels in Canada bursting with excitement.
“Since that moment, I’ve dreamed of having this kind of experience,” Francesco said. “My first choice was the United States. This is my American dream.”
When Francesco first heard about his placement in Yakima, he Google-mapped it.
“It looked like a green spot in the middle of a desert,” he said. “I thought it had to be an error.”
While in transit, he eagerly looked out the plane’s windows and found that the agricultural hub was, in fact, surrounded by arid land much different from Turin, a city where he’s lived since age 10, which he described as filled with skyscrapers, where the food is “really important,” where the landscapes are awesome and people are friendly. Prior to that Francesco grew up in Bologna, a city that is more agricultural, with villas, and similar to Yakima.
In Italy, Francesco attended an elite, high-tech school for high school students who could pass the entrance exams. He was studying physics, mathematics and geography, and will receive a Cambridge diploma upon completing the program.
He hopes his stay in Yakima will improve his (already great) English and teach him more independence so he can better prepare for university, where he hopes to study software engineering. He also hopes to make some fun, distinctively American memories, such as going to a rodeo or playing on his school’s soccer team.
“It’s difficult as a European person to fit into American groups. You don’t feel like you’re in the right place at first,” he said. “You need to be brave once you are here.”
Romane de Sacco
Romane first heard about the Rotary exchange program when her sister decided to go to Italy through an exchange. She said the United States was her first placement choice.
Romane, who likes to hang out with friends and watch movies in her free time in Belgium, said Yakima’s landscape is strikingly different from her homescape. The land in Liege is flatter, with more trees and green vegetation in general. In Belgium, her school day started at 8 a.m. and ran until about 4 p.m. The entirety of her lessons were lectures, in which students listened to the teacher with little interaction, she said.
“Back in Belgium, I am very confident,” she said. “But here, not knowing anyone, I’m very shy. I hope I will become more confident through this experience. I want to have friends and enjoy this.”
Romane said she’s also looking forward to sharing information about her home country with the friends she’ll make.
“I would like Americans to know that Belgium is a really cool, dynamic country,” she said. “People are so nice, and we have the best waffles, fries and beers.”
Guilherme Santos Fernandes
Guilherme said he first heard about the Rotary exchange program through his mother, who owns a beauty salon and heard about the program from one of her customers, whose son was going to France.
“I believed it would be a really good experience,” Guilherme said. “I believe it will develop my responsibility.”
Guilherme said he’s still getting used to Yakima’s climate. He’s also getting used to the idea of attending Eisenhower High School, which is much larger than his school at home.
Guilherme described his school in Brazil as small, with between 500 and 700 students. Classes started at 7 a.m. and ran in 50-minute blocks until noon, with a 30-minute break for lunch. Afternoons and evenings he spent with friends or studying English.
Guilherme said he hopes to learn more about the American ways of work and schooling. He’s already noted some marked differences. Youths his age don’t often work in Brazil, whereas he’s noticed many American teenagers have jobs. Brazilian youths can drink alcohol when they turn 18, but they also aren’t allowed to drive until they reach that age.
“I have absolutely no idea how to drive,” he said, grinning.
Guilherme said he’s been talking with his Brazilian family to keep up his courage. But what he misses most is his 1-year-old cat: a blue-eyed, fluffy white cat he rescued from the streets and named Noir, the French word for black.
The selection process
Amanda McKinney, a youth exchange officer for Sunrise Rotary and a host parent, said the clubs interview parents and school counselors about the prospective inbound youths to make sure the students will be a good fit for the program.
“We want to make sure the students will be OK to be away from their homes for nine to 10 months,” she said. “Students we receive are usually outgoing, problem solvers, well-rounded and independent.”
Though many of the inbound students speak English, McKinney said proficiency is not required for the program. The Rotary clubs’ host families, both in the U.S. and abroad, are heavily vetted, with home visits, criminal background checks and employment verification a part of the process, McKinney said.
McKinney’s daughter Caitlin, 15, said she’s enjoyed being an exchange sister because the young women the family has hosted, from Sweden, Japan, and Italy, have opened her eyes to new cultures, new foods and new perspectives.
“By the end, you get so close,” she added. “These conversations have changed my outlook on life, and these friendships will last forever.”