“Your house is so big!” Gabriela declared upon first seeing her host family’s El Dorado Hills home.
A native of Barcelona, Gabriela Alarte, 16, arrived this week with 90 other students from Austria, Russia and Spain as part of the Education First U.S. Homestay Program, a non-profit group that’s arranged group travel for more than 140,000 international students since 1979. This particular group of 14 to 18-year-olds is living for the month with families in Citrus Heights, Folsom, Orangevale and El Dorado Hills.
Traveling from Barcelona to Frankfurt to San Francisco, then to Vista del Lago High School late at night by bus, Gabriela’s 25-hour journey didn’t faze her. She attended her first day of school Wednesday and, later that evening, the fireworks jubilee at Town Center.
“I’ve seen fireworks before, but not so huge,” Gabriela said of the event.
Host parents, Rob and Rivers Grupp, along with their daughters Caroline, 14, and Isabelle, 10, have skipped many in-person “getting-to-know-you” niceties due to the aid of technology. They got acquainted with Gabriela by e-mail and corresponded with her through Facebook for weeks before her arrival.
“We all instantly recognized each other when she got off the bus,” said Rob.
Technology will also be an antidote to homesickness should it strike. An only child, Gabriela plans to communicate with her parents back home via email and Skype.
Used to the big city, crowds didn’t surprise Gabriela at the jubilee but she said she was surprised her first California summer is so hot. “It’s warm in Barcelona, but not like this,” she said of the extreme, record-breaking heat wave the areas experienced last week.
Gabriela first got the urge to travel when she was 12 and visited upstate New York with her parents. Niagara Falls was great, but she said she appreciated the American people even more.
“They are so friendly. People are nice in Barcelona, but they wouldn’t let people in their homes like this,” she said of her host family’s warm welcome as example.
When she was 13 Gabriela began a summer travel tradition. She and her best friend Ana spent one month as exchange students in Vancouver, Canada. Then one month the following summer in Toronto. This is Gabriela’s first time to California; and Ana is still with her, staying down the road with her host family in Folsom.
Though she loves to travel, Gabriela said she plans to go to a university closer to home and become a surgeon someday.
The homestay program is called Education First; every weekday the students go to school at Vista del Lago to learn English and American culture. Rivers is a teacher at Lake Forest Elementary as well as one of the program’s summer teachers. She doesn’t know yet if Gabriela will be in her class because they’re still figuring out class assignments based on varying English skills.
“I need to practice my English,” Gabriela admitted.
The students will take weekly group excursions to the roller rink, movies, the Folsom outlets and Folsom Lake. There will be one special outing to San Francisco, which Gabriela said she’s most excited about.
The Grupps have additional weekend trips planned to Napa, Santa Cruz, Six Flags and more. There is a master calendar on their kitchen counter that clearly outlines the fun they’ll have in their four weeks together.
Even before she met Gabriela, Rivers said she liked the idea of hosting an exchange student from another country.
“I thought it would be a fun experience for my girls to meet someone from another culture,” she said. “We live in a bubble in El Dorado Hills.”
Then, as Gabriela stood in the Grupps’ kitchen, incredulous to how big their 1,800-square-foot suburban home looked compared to her family’s tiny apartment in Barcelona, Rivers thought yet again how people learn from different perspectives and how some of the best lessons aren’t taught in school.
“By El Dorado Hills’ standards our house isn’t big, but I loved having my daughters hear Gabriela say it is!” Rivers said.
For information about hosting a high school-age exchange student in the future visit efhomestay.org.