At the start of the 2014-2015 school year, Middletown Area High School welcomed two foreign exchange students. Rebecca Niccolai and Chalisa Nonthacoupt left their homes thousands of miles away to spend their junior year of high school as Blue Raiders. Middletown Area School District would like to introduce you our two new friends from the other side of the globe.
In the town of La Spezia, Northern Italy, Rebecca Niccolai lives with her two younger sisters, mother and stepfather. But Rebecca’s dream is to someday live in the United States. So to prepare for that desired future, Rebecca decided to spend a year in the States as a Foreign Exchange Student in hopes of improving her English. Italian students begin learning English at age six so Rebecca had a great foundation. But her transition to an English speaking country wasn’t without its challenges.
In the summer of 2014, Steve and Jody Koncar, and their daughter Bailee, a MAHS Senior, welcomed Rebecca into their home. Rebecca entered Middletown Area High School as a junior and started her first day of school totally overwhelmed and lonely. “I was miserable at the start of school because I couldn’t understand anything. Everything was so different,” she said. The idea of moving from room to room was completely foreign to her. In Italy, students stay in one classroom and the teachers do the rotating. “I was so confused trying to find my way around!” Rebecca said. Lockers, eating lunch at school, sports and the long school day were also new to her. Back home, school days are from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and students are home in time for lunch. They also attend school on Saturdays and have about three hours of homework per day. The Italian school system is also a year longer than the American system which means students don’t graduated until they are 19 years old.
The American testing style was another adjustment for Rebecca. “In Italy every two weeks we meet one on one with a teacher and spend an hour discussing what we’ve learned. Here we have to write out all our answers for our tests. I’m not used to that.” Rebecca also had to adjust to the letter grading scale since she is accustomed to receiving a 1 through 10 as her grade.
But now that the difficult transition is five months behind her, Rebecca has settled in very successfully. “I love it here! I love being in a different school, I love my new friends, I love my host family, I love my sister, Bailee! It is so much better than I ever expected.” Having only movies to form her impression of the American lifestyle, specifically the party atmosphere, Rebecca was relieved to discover that what she saw on the big screen wasn’t reality. “America isn’t at all like that. I love it here so much.” But of course, there are things that are left behind which are sorely missed. “In my town, we have these beautiful outdoor areas that people gather just to hang out and be with their friends. I really miss that. There’s nothing like that here.”
During her time in the states, Rebecca has had the opportunity to visit some of the major cities along the East Coast such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City. She hopes to get to see Boston, Washington D.C. and Niagra Falls before she returns home. Rebecca aspires to attend college to major in international business and she would like to learn Russian and Chinese.
Chalisa “Fon” Nonthacoupt
Sixteen year old Chalisa Nonthacoupt lives in Thailand with her parents, older sister and five dogs. Chalisa was born during a rain storm so her parents call her “Fon” which is the word rain in her language. When Fon was accepted as a foreign exchange student she was first assigned to Japan. But when her location was changed to the United States, her parents were overjoyed. The English language is very important in Thailand, so opportunities to improve her English would equip Fon to find a better career in her home country. Fon had not had any formal training in English so she entered the States with very little English experience.
As expected, the language barrier was Fon’s biggest challenge. She predicted that she would cry on her first day of school. And she did. “I didn’t understand anything and I couldn’t talk or answer anyone.” All of that has drastically changed and Fon is now capable of having conversations with her friends and teachers. “Ms. Layne has really helped me and my friends help me with my homework when I don’t understand. I am more comfortable now.”
This is Fon’s first visit to the United States. Apart from the language, Fon says her culture is very similar to what she has experienced in the States so far. The most unusual thing she has seen in our country is the grocery carts with attached wheelchairs which she’s seen in action at Walmart. Of course, food is always a huge difference for cross-cultural students and Fon is no exception. She greatly misses her father’s cooking.
Fon says it hasn’t been too difficult to adjust to the American style of education. The greatest difference is that she’s accustomed to moving between buildings for different subjects similar to our American college campuses. Fon is a junior at MAHS but since Thailand won’t give her credit for her year of study in America, she will have to repeat 11th grade when she returns home. Fon decided to take advantage of the entire American high school experience by jumping in and participating in extra-curricular activities. Fon joined chorus, keyboarding class, Pride Club and the bowling team. Her Raider friends describe her as helpful and very kind to others. It was evident that they highly respect her as they talked about how well she gets along with others and how sensitive she is to people’s feelings. Fon and her new Middletown friends are proof that genuine friendships can break through any barriers…including language.