By Beniamino Nardin, Harwood correspondent
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Elisa Clerici, a 17-year-old senior from northern Italy, near Lake Como, has taken it into her own hands to reach her goals and spend one year as an exchange student attending Harwood Union High School.
“It wasn’t very easy,” she began. “At first,” she said, “I wasn’t sure if I should start this experience because of COVID.” The previous year, during the uncertain times of the pandemic, before vaccines, many students did not have the opportunity to go abroad. “I wanted so badly to be here, so my family supported me and they made this possible,” Clerici said.
In Clerici’s application to be an exchange student she explained her hobbies (which included running, hiking, spending time in nature, baking and cooking), passions, personality, family and what she expected to take away from her experience. Her agency, Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), is based in Portland, Maine, and is the oldest and largest organization of its kind, having made student exchanges possible since 1947. Once CIEE received Clerici’s application, it was sent to a local coordinator who shared her profile with potential families.
“I always wanted to be an exchange student because I’m a really curious person, and if you’re curious about languages, culture and life experiences, you have to be an exchange student,” she said. She is looking forward to improving her English over the coming year and solidifying her connections in a foreign country.
Clerici adapted quickly. “You can’t be shy in this kind of situation. You have to talk to people and make other people know you. You have to be very brave, also, because it’s like restarting a new life and you don’t know anybody, you have to get on well with a family, which is not yours. It’s not easy, but I think that if you can do that, you will also get used to the language, and you will get used to lots of new things.”
Her hosts are the Thurston family in Waterbury: Tom, Heidi, Ava, Julia and two dogs, Diesel and Archie. The local coordinator first reached out to the Harwood cross-country team in hopes of finding a family aligned with her passion for running.
A GOOD FIT
“Our family heard about this and after reading Elisa’s application we thought it’d be a good fit and a great experience for all of us,” says Ava Thurston, captain of the cross-country team and an avid runner, Nordic skier and lacrosse player. “We’re really enjoying sharing different aspects of our culture and traditions with each other, as well as learning more about true Italian cuisine.” This is the Thurston family’s first time hosting an exchange student.
When Clerici’s exchange year ends, she’ll return to Italy with an American diploma in hand. As Italy has five years of high school instead of four, she will be returning to Milan for a final year of school. After high school, she’ll pursue either nutrition or law and business in Italian or American schools. She envisions herself in the future as a nutritionist with a private practice, collaborating with gyms, doctors and others.
At Harwood, she is taking advanced algebra and trigonometry, designing sustainability, U.S. history, journalism and physics. In the second semester, she will be taking human physiology and economics. Designing sustainability and journalism are completely new to her, and U.S. history is a far more in-depth course than she is used to. In Italy, her study of history included global cultures and countries, so she has already studied some American history, “but it’s completely different learning it in English,” she said.
She was astonished to witness the teacher-student relationship at Harwood. “There is a friendship between the teacher and student, and the teachers try to involve the students in any way and treat you like friends.” In Italy, there is a much more formal distance between teacher and student, which, she said, increases the stress. Italian formality is also reflected in her everyday dress. At Harwood, she noticed how many students dress, from all-black to polychromatic, from hoodies to crop tops. In Italy, there is a stricter dress code.
Another difference she noticed was the interconnectedness of school with sports. In the United States, the school and sports teams are tightly interwoven, while in Italy they are completely separate. In Italy, Clerici ran track and field on a team that was not associated with her school. Here she is on a cross-country team that represents the school.
It hasn’t all been a walk in the park, however. “Already sometimes I feel homesick, obviously, like I want my mom and my dad to be here, and I miss my older sister very much, but I’ve found a really great community of people, so I feel really good now.” But even though she’s an ocean away from home, there’s a similarity that Clerici said is very important to her, and ways that the people she’s met around The Valley and the Harwood community, specifically the cross-country team where she is running varsity, have all impacted her. “I’ve met lots of people that are really welcoming to me, they always help me [with] everything, they are really supportive, so I already feel at home,” she said.