Italian exchange student adjusts to Park life

Senior maintains positivity despite challenges


Kaia Myers

Italian exchange student, senior Eléna Jommi talks with her new friends at lunch Sept. 19 in the cafeteria.

Yonit Krebs

Moving from her home country of Italy to St. Louis Park, Minnesota was not an easy transition, according to exchange student, senior Elena Jommi. She said beyond language difficulties, she had trouble adjusting to the fact that she doesn’t know anyone at Park.

“It’s difficult for me to explain,” Jommi said. “In Italy, because I live in a small town, I know everyone, and I hang out with my friends every day.”

Jommi said she came to Minnesota through the organization AFS Intercultural Programs.

“I don’t decide to go to Minnesota, (AFS) chose for me,” Jommi said. “My brother was an exchange student four years ago, and I wanted to see a new country and meet new people.”

According to Jommi, she is staying with senior Caroline Garland’s family for the school year. Garland said her family decided to host an international student because of her father’s previous affiliation in the AFS organization.

“My father was involved with the AFS program when he was in high school, and more recently our family thought (hosting an exchange student) would be a good idea because we hosted one of the amities who work at PSI,” Garland said.

Emily Turner Baebenroth, the team development specialist at the West Metro branch of AFS-USA, said the AFS mission is to promote peace and justice through intercultural exchanges.

“We started officially after World War II,” Turner Baebenroth said. “The very first AFS volunteers were actually high school students who went to Europe and drove ambulances.They came home from that experience and felt that there needed to be more people-to-people diplomacy to increase understanding around the world.”

Garland said language was a barrier at first, but communication improved after the first few days of acclimation.

“It’s been amazing having Elena stay with us because we learned so much about how our culture affects the world and also things that we wouldn’t have thought of or how different things are in general,” Garland said.

According to Jommi, the way school functions at Park is different from how school works in Italy.

“In Italy, we only have one classroom with the same classmates,” Jommi said. “Teachers move into the class so we, for five years, have the same people in the same class.”

Garland said being a senior proved a challenge for Jommi because students at Park have been less welcoming.

“Another thing that has been difficult and frustrating has been that the people in our school have been not as welcoming as I would have liked them to be because quite a few people just don’t come right up and introduce themselves,” Garland said. “One of the trends at least in Park is that when you’re a senior lots of people don’t try and make new friends, but I think it’s starting to work better now.”

Turner Baebenroth said she finds the relationships developed between the international student and their host family to be one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.

“Every single year we have students who come back from years past to visit their home family or we have host families that go overseas to visit them,” Turner Baebenroth said. “Just last year, we had a host family fly to Spain because their Spanish daughter was getting married and her father had died when she was younger and so her host dad came to give her away at her wedding.”

Garland said AFS stresses communication between host families and international students to make the experience as beneficial as possible.

“There are certain things that AFS sends out that you go through when you first get there, and one of the things on the list is the parents set out a list of expectations for what the student should be doing, and the student tries to meet those expectations and vice versa,” Garland said. “They really stress open communication which is really important for just learning how each other feels about certain aspects of living in a new environment.”

Jommi said there are many challenges associated with having to acclimate to a new environment, but she said a positive attitude is essential.

“It’s difficult because you don’t know anyone and anything about the school,” Jommi said. “You are in a new family with new culture and it’s hard and difficult, but I think that everything is possible to do and very important thing is to smile to your new life, and you have to create a new life in another city.”