LINDEN, NJ — Seven years ago, in their quest to build a better cultural understanding between nations, Linden High School initiated a student foreign exchange program, and last week marked the conclusion of another successful three weeks with students from both Italy and Spain.
Twenty-seven students from Italy, along with 24 students from Spain, became American teenagers for three fun-filled weeks as they soaked up the sights, sounds and flavors of American culture. Linden families hosted the students, who attended the high school with their American counterparts.
In 2009, LHS participated with Alfonso X El Sabio in Murcia, Spain. The region of Murcia is located in the southeastern part of the country, between Andalusia and Valencia. “This is now the eighth time our school has collaborated together for this unforgettable experience for all who are involved,” said Christine Hudak, spokesperson for Linden schools. “Opportunities like these not only create everlasting memories, but also lifelong relationships.”
Since 2010, LHS has partnered with I.I.S.S. P. Calamandrei, the Istituto d’Istruzione Secondaria Superiore Tecnica e Liceale, located in Sesto Fiorentino, Italy, right outside of Florence, for a foreign exchange program. “This is third time that both schools have collaborated to create a memorable experience for American and Italian students alike in the hopes of creating bonds that will last a lifetime,” said Hudak. “The diversity of Linden’s families and community engagement is a vital part of a truly successful exchange program. At Linden Public Schools we take the time to celebrate and learn from it.”
Anthony Fischetti, a teacher and advisor for the exchange program for the Italian students, told LocalSource that a lot of logistical planning goes into the program. According to Fischetti, Alphonsina Paternostro, supervisor of both the World Language and ESL programs at LHS, had a contact at the high school in Florence, Italy. “This school had already done exchange programs with other schools in the U.S. — in California, for example — and were looking to create an experience for their students near New York,” Fischetti said in an email. “After some initial back-and-forth conversation and discussion of parameters, such as host families, length of stay, and sights to see, we began to create itineraries and plan potential trips.”
Fischetti said that once everything was in order, he, along with a teacher in Italy, began to recruit students and families for the program.
The hard work and months of planning is well worth it, according to Fischetti. “It is truly a difficult task for me to enumerate the vast number of personal gains that a student gets through a program such as this,” said Fischetti. “Exposure to a new culture is by far the greatest trait of this program and any of our exchange programs for that matter. In the Linden Public School District, we are committed to embracing our own diversity as a means to help us grow and understand cultures other than our own. We are also committed to creating global-minded students, and frankly, what greater opportunity is there than actually going to the places that students read and study about in class?
Students gain a deep and inspiring global perspective which is so useful in life beyond high school once they get ready to enter the workforce.”
According to Fischetti, who hosted a teacher from the school in Florence, the program has been successful year after year, and both students and parents
have said the experience is life-changing. “The secret really gets out and more and more families want to participate, and this is indeed a challenge, but one that is met happily,” Fischetti said.
This year, 27 families from both Linden and Florence participated in the program. “This is the largest number that I have ever had in terms of an exchange and can be a bit challenging at times when thinking of transportation and visiting different monuments around the U.S.,” said Fischetti. “That being said, I am very fortunate to have seen this program grow and develop in the seven years that it has been happening.”
According to Fischetti, this year’s program had a special significance. “This year, with the recognition of the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, our visit to the 9/11 Memorial, Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty were much more poignant for American and Italian students alike who were infants back in 2001,” he said.
“These trips brought a very recent history to life. Also, with this being an election year, many of the exhibits that we saw in museums, such as the Constitution Museum in Philadelphia, were very informative in terms of the history of the electoral process.”
Megan Romero, also a teacher at LHS and supervisor for the Spanish students, told LocalSource in an email that students gain a new understanding and perspective from the program. “I believe that our students gain an entirely new perspective on teenage life and the culture of the country they are visiting,” said Romero. “When we think of a global perspective and people from around the world solving problems together in harmony, we must understand that the only way to have people working together is to have them know each other and understand each other’s feelings, values, and experiences.”
Although a tremendous amount of time, energy and preparation go into the program, as well as plenty of fundraising efforts, Romero said that there are so many moments that make it all worthwhile. “There are so many beautiful moments associated with the program,” Romero said.
According to Romero, some of the sweetest moments have come during the time just prior to the arrival of their special guests. “The first moment is the anticipation of all of our students right before their partners arrive from the airport,” said Romero, who recalls some of the questions of her students. “‘Miss, do you think they’ll like me? What if we don’t get along in person? What if we really don’t get along?’ — these are some of the questions all teenagers ask when they’re feeling every emotion possible,” said Romero. “The second moment, which is by far the best moment, is when your students are crying, holding their partners begging them to not go back to Spain and asking them to stay in Linden. It’s a beautiful moment when children from thousands of miles away become best friends.”
Twenty-three Linden families hosted 24 students from Spain.
Brendan Birch, a senior at LHS who hosted a student from Italy, raved about the experience. “This was a whole new experience for me,” Brendan told LocalSource during an in-person interview. “I gained a sister out of it. I can’t wait till she comes back.”
Birch, who will be taking part in LHS’s exchange program in the spring and who will be traveling to Italy, said that the experience actually gave him the opportunity to visit places close to home that he had never seen before. “We went to the 9/11 memorial and the Statue of Liberty, and these were places I’d never seen before, so it was a very interesting experience for me,” said Birch.
Anna Ballerini, the exchange student from Florence hosted by the Birch family, told LocalSource that she was struck by certain differences between New Jersey and her hometown in Italy. “Everything is huge here,” Ballerini said. “The cars, the houses, the huge skyscrapers. I loved it. But I prefer the Italian food.”
Elia Marroni, also from Florence and hosted by the Sarnicki family, told LocalSource that he loved Linden. “I think it’s better than Italy,” Marroni said.
But, said Marroni, whose father owns a restaurant serving Tuscan fare back home, American food leaves a lot to be desired. “The Italian food is better,” said Marroni.
LHS senior Connor Sarnicki, who hosted Marroni, said that he feels as if he has gained a family member. “It felt great,” Sarnicki told LocalSource. “We got really close. I feel like I have another brother.”
LHS students will be traveling to Italy in the spring as foreign exchange students, where they will be visiting Rome, Venice, Florence, as well as areas of the Tuscany region.