Oh, The Places You’ll Go; Life as an Exchange Student

Graphic by Julie Samuels

By Zoë Heywood

Features Contributor

As Pedro Pires arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport, he waited for his host mother to bring him to the awaiting new home and begin his first day in the United States as an exchange student.

“ My experiences that day led me to think that the neighborhood was really nice, and everything was in walking distance, which was great to know, as I like going places walking or biking instead of driving, and that everyone around was really nice,” said Pires.  

Stated by Boston Magazine, Newton South High School remains ranked as the fifth best public high school in the Greater Boston Area as of 2016. Thus, students at South are given more of an opportunity to balance their academic work as well as their own personal interests than students enrolled in schools in Pires’s hometown of Sao Paulo.

“I used to do tennis at home, and then stopped because of high school and now here I am doing tennis again because I have more free time,” reminisced Pires.

Differences between Sao Paulo and Newton are not limited to extracurriculars as schools in Sao Paulo require the teachers to move from classroom to classroom, while at South this remains the student’s responsibility.

This movement pattern also remains the norm in Chinese schools explains Chinese exchange student Reyna Yu.

“One of the things that is really annoying in China is that you stay with the same 40 kids from beginning to end, so relationships can get complicated,”  said Yu.

Separated by hemispheres, cultural differences between Sao Paulo, Beijing, and Newton are not restricted to the walls of school buildings, but rather also extend towards personal relationships.

“The community… it’s different here, people in Brazil get really close to each other when they’re actually friends. When I say really close, I mean like really close, and here they are more reserved,” noted Pires.

Both students were originally encouraged to travel to the United States by their families as their families believed these exchange programs will provide insight into American culture before   Pires and Yu commit to attending an American college.

Despite the prominent cultural differences, Pires and Yu both communicate that their decision to participate in an exchange year was one of the best choices they had ever made and has not discouraged their future goals.

For example, in Beijing, Yu admits that study pressures are much higher and reflects that “I really like the teaching styles [at South], and I actually enjoy doing homework here because it’s not as repetitive or tedious as what we have in China. Also we don’t face as much pressure.”

In addition, Yu enjoys the diverse student culture that South recognizes and her outside perspective allows her to witness the plethora of individuality that runs through this school.

“I notice people who dye their hair, ripped jeans or other things that you don’t normally see in China because we respect uniformity,” said Yu.  “We have to wear a uniform to school, we can’t dye our hair, there are so many rules. Here everyone is an individual.”

South’s diversity continues to be showcased through the wide array of clubs available, Yu notes, and these clubs serve as an promising discovery for Yu.

However, Pires remains more impacted by the communal aspects that Newton offers outside the walls of South especially concerning the overall safety of the city.

According to “The Brazil Business”, Pires’s hometown of Sao Paulo is the second safest city in Brazil, however Pires remains impressed with the fact that, “in Newton, the public transport is way better and way safer. I can walk around at any time of the day and stay safe, but instead in Brazil, usually I wouldn’t walk alone in the middle of Sao Paulo.”

Global Education Programs Manager Samantha Mandel agrees with Pires on the impact that Newton’s safety has for exchange students as another Brazilian student emphasized this same difference.

“Our city in Newton was so much safer than where she lived and she couldn’t believe she could walk around on the sidewalk at ten at night and not really worry,” said Mandel.

Pirse’s time at South also furthered his wish to attend an American university due to the grade increase he observed.  

“Before I came here, I already wanted to do college in the US. My grades in Brazil are a little worse than they are here because in Brazil they just throw everything at you and then give you a test. But, here I got better grades, so I could show the colleges my grades here,” said Pires.

Adding on, Mandel reflects that students like Pires who already excel in English upon their transition to South will have an easier and generally more successful adjustment to South’s workload.

“I think depending on a student’s level of English, it can be really hard to go to a school with a foreign language, and keep up especially with a lot of reading and homework and be competing with students who have spoken english since they were babies,” said Mandel.

Mandel also discusses the unlikely difficulties with such an extensive immersion of a new culture and how students who learn about these exchange possibilities in their language arts class are intrigued at the idea of this type of integration.   

“I think when you’re in a language class you learn a lot about the superficial language differences,” cautioned Mandel.

Mandel continues by stating that when a student immerses themselves in another culture they learn more hidden and not necessarily positive aspects about that culture.

However, Mandel concludes that to have such a successful exchange experience like Pires and Yu had, then some discomfort and cultural shocks are inevitable occurrences.

“Everybody has moments where it’s hard and I think that is where a lot of the learning happens. If you’re always in your comfort zone, and everything is easy and fun, you’re probably not getting at the lower level cultural differences,” said Mandel.