Culture appreciation goal of Fox Chapel Area exchange program

November 3, 2018 GMT

For foreign exchange student Carlos Lopez-Ibor, naming the biggest difference between American culture and that of his home country was no easy task.

“Comparing the time you wake up, where you live, the time you eat and the time you go to school, everything is different,” said Lopez-Ibor of Madrid.

Fox Chapel Area School District families this month hosted a group of 11 Spanish teens, including Lopez-Ibor, and their physical education teacher as part of the district’s foreign exchange student program. As part of the program in its second year, students from Spain came to Pittsburgh for two weeks in October and Fox Chapel Area students will travel to Madrid in March.

Renee Kelly and her daughter Maggie hosted two of the students and loved showing off Pittsburgh.

“We have traveled to Europe several times, and my daughter heard about the program through school,” Renee Kelly said. “She approached me about it and thought it would be fun to learn about someone else’s culture.”

Spanish teacher Myriam Fontes is instrumental in the program. A district teacher of 25 years, she calls the program a “golden bow” on her career.

“It’s the second year we are doing it, and it’s been much better than expected,” she said.

With guidance from Pursue Languages -- a company in Spain that connects schools with participating schools abroad -- Fox Chapel Area was matched with Colegio Virgen de Europa. The students, along with instructor Elena Cabezas, arrived in Pittsburgh on Sept. 28 and stayed for two weeks, exploring Downtown Pittsburgh and traveling to Niagara Falls.

Fontes said she picked the field trips carefully because exchange students from Spain are surrounded by centuries-old history every day.

“I asked myself, ‘How can I impress someone that has everything around them?’” Fontes said.

Almost immediately after arriving, the host families showed the students a piece of American high school life. They went to a Friday night football game, followed by Fox Chapel Area High School Homecoming.

Maggie Kelly, a sophomore, said the exchange students told her American high school life felt like a movie to them.

“It’s really interesting to see how they act in our school,” she said. “They thought the football game was crazy. It’s drastically different for them to be in an American school.”

Fontes and the host families also took students to New Wilmington to explore Amish culture, an attempt by the Fox Chapel Area group to highlight how multicultural America is.

“We went to their homes, to their stores, played with the Amish kids and bought their products,” Fontes said.

Differences in the two country’s traditions are what stood out most to instructor Cabezas.

“It’s so important to understand the difference in culture between the two countries,” Cabezas said. “From lifestyles, food and sports... I learned so much, too.”