Exchange students soak up American culture in Pasco County
Meeting new people and participating in different experiences can be a challenge for most people, but imagine awakening one morning to find everything has changed — from the people you live with to the language being spoken. For exchange students Keythellyn and Matea, that is exactly what happened about three months ago. Both girls applied for the Rotary Youth Exchange Program after talking to friends about their experiences as exchange students in other countries. Sixteen-year-old Keythellyn is from Porto Seguro, Brazil, and is staying with John and Michelle Levitt in Dade City, where she attends Pasco High School.Matea, also 16, is from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is living with David and Pat Waite near San Antonio and attending Wesley Chapel High School. (Under a Rotary Youth Exchange policy, the girls are not being identified with their last names.) Levitt and Waite are local Rotarians. Levitt is a member of the Sunrise Rotary in Dade City, and Waite is a member of the San Antonio Rotary. The girls are about three months into a long-term exchange of about a year and are experiencing life in America firsthand. Both teenagers said other students show a lot of interest in them by asking about their homes and how words are said in their language. Some questions amuse them: fellow students ask if they know who current pop stars are and whether or not they have iPhones and iPads, as if they live in isolation from the rest of the world. While the two come from different parts of the world and have very different views on some issues, they agree on one thing: The biggest difference they've experienced upon coming to the United States is the food. In the United States, people seem to eat fast food every day, Keythellyn said. She says fast food is popular in Brazil, too, but not as a daily meal. People in Brazil eat a lot of vegetables; rice and beans are a staple as well as fresh meats. Still, she finds the food here delicious. Matea likes the U.S. food, but says it is "too fat, way too fat. I gained 25 pounds." Food in Bosnia is much healthier, she said. They don't label food organic because everything is organic. She says her eating habits haven't changed, rather it is the fat content of the food. She has had to begin a very American practice — counting calories. When told she did not appear overweight, she held up her thumb and forefinger in measurement and said: "Girls in Bosnia are like that." Both girls also agreed they are beginning to miss their families. At first it was like a vacation, but as time goes on birthdays are missed, and as the holidays approach they begin to long for familial celebrations. But they say the experience they will gain this year will be worth it. Keythellyn said her host family fills in some of the gaps when she begins to feel homesick. Thanksgiving intensified their feelings to a degree. Thanksgiving is not celebrated in their home countries as it is here, but the tables of festive foods reminded them of Christmas. Still, the girls say they want to stay, unlike other kids in exchange programs who became homesick and returned to their countries. Like any teen, school makes up a big part of their lives, and the girls say school work is different from their home countries. Here students take the same subjects each day, but in Brazil and Bosnia, the subjects are different each day of the week. Matea said school is tougher in Bosnia. She takes 18 subjects including English, German, Latin and ancient Greek. She took honors classes here, and has kept a grade point average of about 3.5. When she goes home, she said she'll have a lot of catching up to do because getting into university is competitive. In Brazil, Keythellyn takes 13 subjects and will also have to spend some time making up school work when she returns. University opportunities also are limited in Brazil. Both girls say they appreciate the opportunities they have been afforded and appreciate the new friends they have made. More than 80 countries and more than 8,000 students each year participate in the Rotary Youth Exchange program. The program is administered at the regional level by Rotary districts and at the local level by Rotary clubs. Another Pasco County student, Riko, from Japan, has also been living in Dade City and attending Pasco High. She has been visiting in North Carolina.