Welcome to America.
With an outstretched hand and a smile on her face, senior Katarina Merlini greets a tall boy from Austria. Then a wide-eyed student from Italy, a boy from Panama, a boy from Bangladesh: all foreign exchange students from all across the world gathering in the USA for the first time.
“The arrival orientation was fun and interesting but we heard a lot of stuff we already heard before,” foreign exchange student from Austria, Martin Kaar said. “It was nice having [Merlini] there because she was our age and not 50 or older.”
Merlini volunteers at AFS Intercultural, a company that helps students participate in a foreign exchange. A company that helped Merlini herself when she decided to create her own adventure and live in Spain for 10 months.
“After experiencing everything that had happened in Spain and how some of the [AFS] volunteers had been good, others not so good, it inspired me,” Merlini said. “What can I do to prevent what happened to me from happening to other people? I feel like the support system for an exchange student is so important.”
At the AFS Arrival Orientation, where volunteers and AFS administrators went over American laws and traditions, Merlini remembered her own first day memories, back in September 2011. Back then, it looked like traveling to Spain and staying in the small town of Villarejo de Salvanes was the best decision she could’ve made.
“I kept thinking Spain would be amazing and the time of my life from the time we touched down to about the beginnings of October,” Merlini said. “I thought my host-sister and I would be bffs, my host family would essentially be a second family and I’d make these amazing family friends.”
Three months later, when the extremely dry, extremely hot 100 degree weather cooled down to an average of 30 degrees, her mood had changed. Later, in May, she told friends and family, through the lens of a camera, why exactly she was so excited to return.
The culture differences were evident, from the beginning.
“In Spain the children are expected to grow up and that’s it,” Merlini said. “They don’t have any chores, they don’t have any jobs… Child raising is hands off. And that was very unusual.”
School was lax and informal, students could fail two classes and still pass the year, her classmates would spend lunch smoking marijuana on the playground, and days could go by when teachers would just not show up.
The large 2,000 student Villarejo de Salvanes High School, she believes, was particularly hard to adjust to and Merlini found herself sitting on the sidelines for most school days, separated by a thick cloud of cigarette smoke.
“It’s kind of like a school wide clique,” Merlini said. “You’re an outsider and that’s it… I’d sit around while they’d all smoke and they didn’t really speak to me. They just tolerated my presence. I didn’t have anyone to really go out with.”
School, though, wasn’t the true problem. Her host family of four was the root cause of her disappointing experience. There was her dad, a tough man who left for work on Monday and didn’t return until Friday evening. Her mom, a “domestic goddess”, expected Merlini to save her daughter and create a deep bond with her son.
“They came in expecting me to go party, maybe even fix Marta a little bit,” Merlini said. “And I didn’t.”
Her host brother was eight and little, crying constantly in a way Merlini described as “annoying” in an early video blog. And then there was Marta, her 15 year old host sister.
Marta provided a challenge for Merlini. She began to show anorexic tendencies and hung out with friends who didn’t have her best interests in mind. She’d have her boyfriend spend the night almost daily, and sometimes wouldn’t be home until 3 or 4 in the morning with school early the next day.
“I kind of stayed clear of [my host-sister],” Merlini said. “The first three months I actually tried and then I sort of got my heart broken and I was like I’m done with this. I stopped going out with her and I just stayed away from her because she was trouble.”
Merlini decided she had to get out. She pulled her host mother, Hemma, aside in December to discuss a transfer and got a response she had never expected. Crying, her host mother pulled her to her chest and begged her not to leave.
“She said I know your host sister loves you. I know your host brother loves you… [Your] host father is tough but he likes you too and I like you. Please don’t go, please don’t go,” Merlini said.
After a long night, Merlini decided to stick it out. She stayed for her school, hoping that her credits would transfer and she stayed to try and work on her bond with her host family.
“[I was thinking] I’ll give it another try, I’ll give it another shot,” Merlini said. “These people legitimately care about me.”
Ann Steglich, a volunteer at AFS in Michigan, feels that Merlini’s host family could’ve begged her to stay as a way to save face in their small community.
“It depends on the culture…” Steglich said. “If [a foreign exchange student] moves then I’m sure they wonder why you move. Because maybe it does cast a bad light on something is the matter with your family. When, really, it could be something is the matter with the student.”
As the months went by and the second chance she decided to give her school, her town and her family didn’t work out, Merlini began to lean on the friends she’d made through AFS to help her get through the tough times.
“My fellow exchange students were like my crutch,” Merlini said. “They were always there for me. If I wanted to cry about my situation, I could always go to them.”
Erika Petersen, one of Merlni’s friends from AFS remembers how they had frequently chatted over Facebook while in Spain, Petersen passing along advice. She hated to see her friend go through such a hard time while she was forming a tight bond with her own host family.
“I wanted her to have a good experience,” Petersen said. “I think it’s horrible to go to a country somewhere and you’re not happy and you don’t have a lot of time.”
From America, Merlini’s mother sent tri-weekly e-mail exchanges with her daughter and spoke to her via Skype twice a week. She saw the way Merlini’s mood changed drastically from October to May, but she never pressured her to come home early.
“I left the decision up to her,” Raquel Merlini said. “I figured it was her decision to go to Spain. I told her that whatever decision was good for her I wouldn’t think less of her whether she stayed or whether she came home… But whatever decision she made she’d have to live with it and I didn’t want her to live with regret.”
So Merlini did stay, her relationship with her host family rocky but bearable. At least until the second to last month of her trip when everything came crumbling down.
Her host-family pulled her aside and told her in rapid fire Spanish that they regretted ever inviting her in their home.
“Living with them, knowing that they hate you and that they don’t want you and that they feel that they’ve lost 10 months of their lives is just such a terrible experience,” Merlini said. “I felt horrible.”
Angry, disappointed and somewhat heartbroken, Merlini spent her remaining time avoiding the family. Instead of lounging around the house, or walking through the small town, she spent time with her AFS friends in Madrid at local coffee shops or stores.
“They really made the experience…” Merlini said. “The best part was meeting the other people [through AFS]. Not going to school, not living with a family, just the people that I met there. They changed my life.”
Finally in mid-June she returned to the Madrid airport to go home. She said her goodbyes to John and Sullivan and Erika and her other new lifelong friends from AFS, and hopped aboard without one kind word to her host-family.
In August, though, she got more bad news. None of her credits would transfer, and while she would not have to repeat her junior year, she would have to balance three online classes, a full schedule and a 10 hour per week job in order to graduate in June.
“Well in order for credits to transfer, it has to be an accredited institution…” Merlini’s counselor Toby Loukmas said. “She doesn’t get the credits on her transcripts but we acknowledge that she was in class during that year. Therefore her credits will be reduced a little based on what she has to do to meet graduation… And so therefore instead of needing 28 credits to graduate she’s going to need 25. But she does have to meet all of the Michigan Merit Curriculum.”
Merlini had a bad time, a bad experience and overall a bad year, but she said becoming a foreign exchange student was something she couldn’t regret.
“There are days when I’m looking at all the schooling I have to do and I’m like I should have never done this, I had no business doing this,” Merlini said. “But when I’m Skyping with one of my friends and we’re remembering that time when, and we laugh about it for 20 minutes until we’re crying it’s hard to say I regret it.”
So in early July Merlini signed up to work at AFS Intercultural events, trying to smooth the transition of foreign exchange students coming to America, trying to make their experience one they would never be able to forget- in a good way.
“[Merlini’s] made [my experience in America so far] very enjoyable,” Kaar said. “It was great to know someone my age I could hang out with.”
Merlini also encourages any high school student in America to consider becoming an exchange student in a far away country.
“I think that an exchange program is such a wonderful opportunity and if you ever have the opportunity I say make sure you do it…” Merlini said. “It’s just such an awesome experience to go and live and experience that culture. Even if you do have a crappy time, like I did, it’s still an experience. [I] can say I won. I beat Spain.”