From bulk shopping at Costco to camping in Santa Cruz, Spanish teen Gabriela Alarte has immersed herself in American culture since arriving in El Dorado Hills on July 2. She attends school at Vista del Lago every weekday, but it’s the experiences she’s shared with her host family and other exchange students that have been the real education.
Gabriela walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and meandered through Union Square with her Education First group — the foreign exchange program she is travelling with for the month of July. Ninety high school students from Austria, Russia and Spain are living with host families in El Dorado Hills and neighboring communities.
Gabriela, 16, a native of Barcelona, lives with the Grupp family of El Dorado Hills. After school hours and on weekends they’ve made sure she’s experienced as much American life a 16-year-old could squeeze into four weeks. Recently parents Rob and Rivers and daughters Caroline, 14, and Isabelle, 10, took Gabriela camping in Santa Cruz.
“We didn’t arrive until 10 p.m., but we had to make a campfire and introduce Gabriela to s’mores first thing,” said Rivers.
“They were soooo good!” chimed in Gabriela. “I’ve had marshmallows and chocolate, but not the … what do you call them?” she asked, miming a sandwich being pressed together.
Gabriela tried corn dogs and funnel cake on the Boardwalk for the first time too, but the beach lifeguards made the biggest impression. Gabriela explained that she lives by the Mediterranean, but has never seen a lifeguard. When she saw two in Santa Cruz paddle out to a swimmer in distress she wanted to know more. She pulled a hesitant Caroline along to ask for a photo. Caroline still laughs to describe her new, shy friend gesturing to one lifeguard to take his shirt off for the picture. It’s a memory the family still laughs about together.
Beyond lifeguards, food in general has been the biggest difference Gabriela sees between the United States and Spain. Unlike the three solid meals a day Americans eat, Gabriela described how at home she eats many small meals a day and then a large dinner at 9 or 10 p.m. every night. Gabriela said her family goes to the market every day and was surprised to see the way American families like the Grupps stock up for the week or longer. The family took Gabriela to Costco and said her eyes got as big as saucers when they hoisted a 50-pound bag of flour for dad Rob’s frequent baked goods onto their cart. Gabriela was amazed by Safeway too, especially the long aisle filled with frozen desserts.
“Is this an entire row o f…?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s all ice cream,” said Rob.
During the school year Gabriela attends classes from approximately 8:30 to 5 p.m. in Barcelona, so going every day until noon has been no big deal. She mostly likes learning new vocabulary words at school and practicing her English, the common language, with her new Austrian and Russian friends. Though Gabriela’s English comprehension is good, she’s placed in track three on a three-to-five scale of English language skills, with five being the most fluent.
Host mom Rivers teaches a track four class. “It’s been a big change compared to teaching first graders at Lake Forest,” she said. “They ask to go to the bathroom more than my first graders do!”
Gabriela and the Grupps aren’t eager to part ways but know they’ve formed friendships that will last a lifetime, they said. Isabella has enjoyed learning some Spanish and Caroline said she likes having someone new that’s close to her age in the house. With the aid of technology they said it would be easy to keep in touch.
Asked if she’s been at all homesick, Gabriela smiled broadly and said, “Not really.”
“Gabriela’s wonderful. We really lucked out!” said Rivers. “She’s so respectful. Having someone for a month could’ve been stressful, but it’s been a great experience.”
For more information about Education First visit ef.com.