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Op-ed column

Foreign student helps host family see region in new, positive light

Sunday, March 17, 2013
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Op-ed column


My daughter has become quite fond of telling me how boring it is growing up in the Capital Region. While we used to refer to the larger area of the Capital Region as “Smalbany,” she and her friends now refer to it more specifically as “Smallectady.”

Once she passed her road test, she modified her opinion. “Dad,” she said, “Things have changed. I always thought there was nothing to do here, but now that I have a license and a car, I know there is really nothing to do here.” Emphasis here on really. This is not an unfamiliar tune; teenagers and young adults have been singing this tune for the past several generations, mine included. And, most likely, it’s not unique to our area.

Lesson in perspective

Now, insert into her life a foreign exchange student from Spain, and we all get a lesson in the meaning of the word perspective. He’s a polite, smart and savvy kid who at 16 traveled thousands of miles from his home to take up residence in a country that he had experienced only through the Internet, in a city that he probably never heard of, and with a family of virtual strangers. That takes a curious mix of fortitude, self-reliance, and innocence.

While I believe in the basic goodness of mankind, I would have been a little too paranoid and a lot more terrified to make such a journey at his age — not just across the broad expanse of the Atlantic, but across the even wider chasm of daring to open myself to the possibilities of adventure and self-discovery.

Sabin hails from the Basque region of Spain. His hometown, Getxo, with a population of about 80,000, while a bit larger than Schenectady, has the same kind of mid-size town feeling. The big city, Bilbao, is about 15 miles away. For the uninitiated, Bilbao, with a population of slightly more than 350,000 is the capital of the Spanish province of Biscay, which is part of the autonomous community known as the Basque Country.

While here in Schenectady, he is at home with a warm and caring family that has been this route before, hosting students from Spain and China. Just as it takes a special kid to make this voyage, it takes a special family that is willing to open its heart and home to a teenage boy known only from his résumé, application and photos.

Point of view

A few weeks ago, I sat down with this remarkable young man to get, as they say, his take on living in Smallectady and his assessment of the sights and sounds of the great Northeast.

Through my conversations, I have learned more about life, courage, and how to fulfill your own expectations from him than I expect he has from me. First of all, his English is nearly flawless. With the exception of a few idioms that leave a puzzled look on his face, his English is better than many 17-year-olds who claim it as their native tongue.

Sabin gave me a snapshot of the foreign exchange process or as they now call it, international student exchange. It’s not as complicated as much as it is intense. Applications, résumés, host family inspections, and finally parental sign-off. I also learned that Schenectady is quite the “hot” destination for foreign high school students. His agency sponsor, PAX (Program of Academic Exchange), has placed a good number of these students right here in Old Dorp and its environs. And, Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons (ND-BG) has become the academic and social community where many of these kids are nurtured and educated as they live out their American experience.

I then asked Sabin: “So, is this area as boring and hopeless as my daughter thinks?” While she rolled her eyes, he chuckled.

Sabin loves the snow, which is one of the reasons our area appeals to him. Back in Spain, he told me, it’s a four-to-five-hour trek to the mountains before he can indulge one of his many pastimes, skiing.

“Here,” he said, “you have so many places to choose from, and you can get there, ski, and get back home all in the same day. That’s great,” he said, with a broad smile on his face. He then ticked off the places where he can swish down the slopes: West Mountain, Gore, Butternut, Jiminy Peak, Windham, Hunter and Stratton.

Our conversation then took us to basketball. Sabin made the varsity team at ND-BG this season. While he loved the experience, he grimaced as he described just how physically the game is played here. “I don’t know if it’s that way in all of America,” he said, “but in this area the high-school game is played with more intensity than in Spain. I don’t know if it’s just the Big 10, where my school plays, but, boy these guys are big, fast and powerful. Wow.”

Impressive sights

Enough about sports, I said, let’s move on to what else, if anything, has captured your attention here. He told me that he was “very” impressed when he traveled to Albany to see the state Capitol and the Empire State Plaza. “While the architecture isn’t what you might find in Europe, the size of it all, for a state, is very big.”

He then proceeded to list other sites here that impressed him: The Historic Stockade District, the Saratoga Battlefield, the Bennington Battle Monument — each reminded him of what he studied in school about America’s Colonial period. While his courses back home didn’t go into great detail, he was familiar with the historical significance of places like Fort Orange, Fort William Henry and Fort Ticonderoga.

I looked at my daughter, as this kid from Spain showed a greater appreciation of our area’s place in history; again, she rolled her eyes and walked away. I was surprised she didn’t give me her usual response in situations like this. “Dad, that was then and this is now.”

We then moved on to how his contemporaries at ND-BG stacked up to his classmates in Spain. “Well, the guys [meaning boys and girls] in my school here are very smart, and they’re not at all the selfish kids that my friends in Spain told me to expect. We all thought that American kids acted like their country is better than any other, but I haven’t found that to be true, not at all.”

My daughter, now back in the room, beamed.

But, he said, “They are more materialistic than the kids in Spain, yes, definitely so.” Again, my daughter rolled her eyes and left the room. So, he quickly added, “I really do love my school and the kids here, very much. They are so nice, and it’s great because all the teachers know you by name.”

I asked, if he had the chance to come back to America as part of a college program, would he? “Oh yes, definitely,” he said. “and back to Schenectady,” he said, “yes, absolutely.”

I smiled at my daughter, she smiled back. But, she leaned over and whispered to me: “Yeah, but there’s still nothing to do here.” I growled; she left the room. See, it’s all about perspective.

Not about money

It appears that the Niskayuna School District is now looking to attract students from beyond our shores to its plush high-school digs. I just hope that it’s not just an effort to add to its already substantial coffers.

Kids like Sabin deserve to be here because they are embarking on what they view as the voyage of a lifetime. They have earned our admiration, our respect, and our genuine hospitality for taking a leap of faith and immersing themselves in another culture, another history, for taking an incredible journey where I think you learn just as much about yourself as you do your host country. It’s too special, too personal for both student and host family, to be sought after merely as a means to fill a school’s budget hole.

I guess it really is a matter of perspective. And you can add heart and conscience too.

Frank Ciervo lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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