Camaraderie And Cultural Exchange
What do the Rocky Mountains and the Italian Alps have in common? A charming, well-spoken 18 year old Rotary exchange student named Francesco LoRusso. One recent chilly afternoon, we met for coffee and a talk about the experience of being a Rotary Youth Exchange student. We shared insights and observations which cross the decades; his now, in Estes Park and mine in 1970 in Matsumoto, Japan, at the foot of the Japan Alps.
‘Fra’, as he is known at Estes Park High School, arrived in Estes Park on August 20th, 2011 from the village of Cedegolo, Italy in the mountains north of Milan. He happily talks of his home country and is proud to be representing Italy to the people of the Estes Valley. We shared thoughts on food (he loves American fast food), making new friends, struggles with the language, and homesickness. He said he misses hanging out with friends, and his parents and siblings. “In my village, I know everyone and everything that is going on. It is smaller than Estes Park.” However, with his positive attitude, he has quickly become familiar with his adopted home. Some of the many activities he enjoys are walking around downtown, going to the Stanley Hotel for classical music concerts, skiing, hiking, climbing, sporting events, and participating in high school sports.
One might wonder why a teenager would leave the security of friends and family to venture to far-off places. In LoRusso’s case, his desire to learn English by immersion and to experience the traditions and culture of the United States made him seek out the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. He was encouraged by his mother, a teacher, and his father, a hydroelectric company administrator. He has two siblings, an older sister who attends university and a younger brother who may follow in his footsteps. We talked about the many advantages of studying abroad. We both agreed that the experience promotes cultural understanding, broadens one’s interests and gives a confidence and maturity that is already evident in Francesco’s demeanor and English skills. “You have to open your mind,” he emphases.
Even so, living in a foreign country is an adjustment. He credits his friends at EPHS, teachers and counselors, and his host families with helping him adjust in a supportive environment. In addition, it has been a comfort to spend time with the other exchange student in town. Francesco and Jose`, a student from Chile, relate as only students in an exchange program can. I remember all too well how contact with other Rotary students would alleviate the homesickness and help me to soak up the study abroad experience. One can choose to live abroad, but becoming part of a foreign family is an experience that comes once in a lifetime. It changes you forever.
The Rotary Club of Estes Park and Longs Peak Rotary share the sponsorship responsibilities for Francesco. He has a Rotary counselor assigned to communicate any concerns or needs he or his Italian family might have to the clubs via the Youth Exchange Committee. This committee also works with the host families to ensure both the student and host families will have a positive experience.
While honing his English language skills at EPHS, LoRusso has made the high Honor Roll, an enviable achievement for any student, let alone a non-native speaker. He says high school is easier here than in Italy where students attend school six days a week for five years. At EPHS, he most enjoys science and technology classes, especially physics. LoRusso notes that physics is the most challenging but also his most interesting class. He is also participating on the basketball and swim teams, opportunities not available in Italian high schools.
LoRusso says he used to be interested only in Italy but now, with a new perspective he is considering applying for college in the US. This summer he will return to Italy to complete high school. Before he goes, he has one more ‘American’ event he wants to witness – the 4th of July. His eyes light up when he imagines seeing the fireworks over Lake Estes.
At the end, our conversation once again turned to the benefits of this outstanding program. In Francesco’s opinion, “You shouldn’t be afraid to leave your village and your family. The time goes faster than you think.” One thing is certain, this confident young man will take many wonderful memories and friendships home with him when he returns to Italy. As we parted, he said, “I love Estes Park. I will come back for sure!”