Note: This story appeared in the February 2nd edition of the Perham Focus. It’s been reprinted with permission from the Perham Focus. The article can be viewed on the Perham Focus’ website as well by clicking here.
By Elizabeth Vierkant
Traveling to a new country on your own with only a basic knowledge of its language can be a terrifying process. However, many amazing friendships and skills can come from just taking that large step. When four girls — Sarah Barbero of Spain, Mona Schuette of Germany, Luana Bermudez of Argentina and Debora Porcelluzzi of Italy — flew across the world to become exchange students at Perham High School, many months of laughter and fun were ahead of them. Not only would they form close friendships with each other, but they would also grow close to the Perham community as each joined the girls basketball team.
All four of them arrived in late August prior to the 2022-23 school year. The beginning was difficult. While each of them knew basic English and could follow conversation, speaking was hard. They didn’t know anyone, and American culture was very different.
“It was difficult to understand and talk,” remembers Barbero. “The pronunciation — like, how do you speak? I had to repeat (myself) like three times. You just know, like, nobody.”
Schuette continued, “Most of the time, you pretty much understand everything, but sometimes it’s hard — like, especially in the beginning it’s hard to talk.”
When learning a new language, the four girls shared that they had to think extra hard. They had to constantly think in two different languages, forming thoughts and phrases in their native language and then translating said thoughts into English. The realization that everything had to be in English from now until they went home was a big and strange one. However, English comes easily to all of them now. Barbero even joked that some days, it’s like her first language. She even found herself accidentally speaking it to her family in Spain.
While in the beginning change was hard for the girls, experiencing a new culture and getting to know America through the Perham area was quite nice. Everyone feels like they know each other, and they’re all willing to help you out, Barbero said.
Before school started on her third day in America, Porcelluzzi went swimming at the community center. When she was there, everyone was saying hi to her even though they didn’t know her. They were all so nice. From a big city herself, she isn’t used to this energy. While learning all the new faces was overwhelming for her and the other exchange students at first, they still appreciated the kindness.
“I’m really glad that I’m here and not in, like, a big city,” said Bermudez. “I feel like here is more like a home. They’re all together and nice. I feel safe, you know? It’s kind of that feeling, and everyone is friendly. I’m really glad I’m here.”
Another big part of both America and the Perham community that they’ve enjoyed is the dedication to sports. These activities are taken much more seriously in the U.S., and the girls were amazed by the school spirit and how many people would go to the events and cheer for their teams.
“Everyone supports each other,” Schuette said. “It’s really nice.”
While all four had experienced sports before, their countries tend to have “club sports” rather than “school sports.” Barbero and Porcelluzzi even joked that what they experienced in their home countries was practice “two hours a week,” but in America, it’s been “two hours a day.” They all love this change, though, and the games are so fun for them.
In the fall season, Schuette and Porcelluzzi were both in swimming. Barbero and Bermudez were in volleyball. Once fall sports were over, all of them still wanted to be involved. They like being active, doing something after school and being able to meet new people. While none of them had been on a basketball team before, it was the sport that made the most sense for them to join. They love the vibes of the team, and they didn’t have any experience in hockey or gymnastics.
They joked that when they tried to put on skates, they were slipping all over the ice. So, they joined basketball. Though this seemed like the most simple sport, the four girls had plenty to learn.
Though the basketball team was already a “team unit,” they still included these four new girls into their dynamic. The girls found that their teammates and coaches were really helpful while they learned the rules and how to play. Though Barbero had some experience playing basketball for fun, they were all almost entirely new to the sport until about two months ago.
“I think that maybe, the elementary basketball (players), they are better than us,” Barbero joked, earning laughs from her friends.
Joining the basketball team not only helped them gain even more friends, but they also grew even closer to one another. Coming to a new country and culture while simultaneously learning English are struggles they all can relate to. It’s brought them together, and that bond is recognized by those around them.
“We’re like a family,” Bermudez said.
Barbero added, “International family.”
To which, all the girls jokingly said in unison: “United Nations.”
Their basketball coach, TJ Super, came up with the nickname “United Nations,” for their friend group, just from the sheer number of countries represented between them — showing that friendships can form regardless of backgrounds.
From getting stuck outside in the cold to losing a phone in the water while ice fishing, the four have been through many shenanigans and experiences with one another. Each is appreciated by their basketball team as well. In their last home game on Tuesday, Jan. 24, the school played each girl’s home national anthem, during which they got to stand at the center of the court during their individual songs. Porcelluzzi even wore the Italian flag for this, and coach Super said they were all very proud of this moment.
A few days before this game, all of the girls even made a large meal for their teammates with food from their individual countries. Porcelluzzi made risotto and tiramisu. Schuette made bratwurst, sauerkraut and spaghettieis (spaghetti-shaped ice cream). Barbero made empanadas and turron aleman. Barbero made potato omelets and torrijas.
Super said the team loved the meal, and the four exchange students got to share a bit of their home with their friends before the time to leave America approached for two of them.
Schuette left Perham for Germany on Saturday, Jan. 28, and Bermudez left to return to Argentina on Monday, Jan. 30. Barbero and Porcelluzzi will stay in Perham until they finish the 2022-2023 school year in June. Though saddened by the departure, all four girls are determined to see one another and several of their Perham friends again.
“Here, the people are so nice,” Barbero concluded. “They come to you if they see you sad and say, ‘I cannot understand, but I can make you feel happy today.'”
“Everyone is really open and including us,” Bermudez agreed.