International AFS Students Find A Home, Friends In Chatham

By: Debra Lawless

Chatham AFS students, from left, Yoshika Hida of Japan, Estela Sanchez Olivencia of Spain, Meret Prangulaishvili of Switzerland. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

When Yoshika Hida of Hiratsuka, Japan, learned that she would spend her AFS year abroad in Chatham, she thought she already knew something of Cape Cod.

Tokyo Disney Resort has an old Cape Cod-themed area featuring a red and white striped lighthouse, docks, boats, a white church and lots of rocks.

And, as it turns out, “it was not right,” Yoshika says. Chatham does not look like Tokyo Disney’s version of “old Cape Cod.”

Yoshika, 18; Estela Sanchez Olivencia, 16, of Granada, Spain; and Meret Prangulaishvili, 18, of Zurich, Switzerland, have gathered this afternoon at the Chatham home of AFS volunteer Karla Lucchesi. Estela and Meret have lived with the Lucchesi family since August. Yoshika lives in South Chatham with AFS volunteer Anne D’Urso, who is also present. Yoshika, Estela and Meret are three of the more than 2,500 international students from 90 countries studying in U.S. high schools this year through AFS.

When you sign up for a high school year abroad through AFS you can choose what country you’d like to live in, but you cannot choose where in the country you want to live. So it was just the luck of the draw that these three students ended up in Chatham, attending junior year at Monomoy Regional High School. (A fourth AFS students is living and attending school in Falmouth.)

Karla and Anne each have two grown sons in their 30s. And by now the two women have hosted 31 AFS students between them.

“We treat the kids like they’re family,” Anne says. And, speaking from her long experience with the students, she adds, “kids who come with the least expectations usually do the best because what happens, happens.” If they have a “fairy tale” idea of their year abroad, their dreams are bound to be shattered.

The three students arrived two weeks before school began, and they each faced different challenges. For Meret, the August humidity was something new. For Estela, snow and cold weather were new. During one March snowstorm she shoveled the front walk and tried to make a “snowperson” but the snow was too fluffy.

For Yoshika, the language and culture posed challenges, not to mention the food.

“Oh my gosh,” she says. “I gained a lot of weight.”

For Estela, the timing of meals was strange. At home in Spain, her family normally eats dinner at 10 p.m. But she has learned to roll with her new schedule, and she loves “the mac and cheese of Karla,” she says.

Karla laughs. “And they can eat a lot of mac and cheese.”

Because the time difference with Europe is six hours, Estela and Meret speak with their families using FaceTime. For Yoshika, though, the time difference is 13 hours, and so she texts family members.

The teaching style in Monomoy’s classrooms is very different from what the students were used to at home. Yoshika says that Japanese classrooms are run by very strict rules. You are supposed to sit still, take notes, and listen to the teacher. Any questions are to be asked after class, and teachers are not friendly.

Estela says that if you don’t understand something in school in Spain, the teacher tells you to consult a YouTube video rather than answering your questions.

Meret’s favorite class is government. “It provided me with the necessary knowledge that now I can watch news,” she says. During Memorial Day weekend Meret and Estela traveled to Washington, D.C. with Karla and her husband. There, Meret got into debates with people over current issues. Her government class “opened a door,” she adds.

For Estela, the best class is forensics. “We studied dates and crimes and how to sort them,” she says. She wants to be a national policewoman when she finishes her schooling.

And for Yoshika, creative writing is a great class. “I like writing my journal, stories, poems,” she says.

Yoshika joined the track team and appeared as a singer and dancer in the school musical “All Shook Up.” Meret worked with the back stage theater crew. Estela played tennis and she and Yoshika both became cheerleaders, something they don’t have in their home countries.

The students love Chatham’s beaches, and doing simple things with their friends such as sitting in cars in the beach parking lot listening to music and eating ice cream.

As well as Washington, D.C. the three students traveled with their host families to New York City. There, “we did every touristy thing you can do,” Karla says.

The trio will leave on June 25, and Anne predicts that “on departure day there won’t be a dry eye.”

“That’s the worst day ever,” Karla agrees.

“We had our world travels right at home,” Anne says. Yet she has also traveled the world, visiting all but one of her AFS students in their home countries. “You end up with friends all over the world.”

Because AFS fosters understanding between people of different countries in a very basic way, “now more than ever we need this program,” Anne adds.

AFS is always looking for host families on Cape Cod. To volunteer, email Anne D’Urso at aedurso@yahoo.com, call 1-800-AFS-INFO or visit afsusa.org.