COLORADO SPRINGS. For most Colorado residents it’s probably hard to remember the first time they saw snow. But for three international students at St. Mary’s High School, this year’s early snows provided their first glimpse of frozen precipitation. Maria Emilia Garcia Montes, known as Emi, Martin Garcia Morales, and Sebastian deJesus Hernandez Liquez are the three newest international students to attend St. Mary’s and are part of a new partnership the school has with “Faces & Our Culture,” which is a cultural exchange program between Guatemala and the United States.
“One of the strangest things for me is that we have mountains in Guatemala but no snow, and you have mountains with lots of snow,” Emi said. “It’s my first time seeing snow.”
Emi, Martin, and Sebastian arrived at St. Mary’s in October, and are spending summer break from their Guatemalan schools in the U.S. They will return home in early December after spending two months attending classes, giving presentations and soaking up American culture. All three students have been to the U.S. before. Sebastian and Martin, who are both from Guatemala City, have visited Florida often with their parents, and Emi, who is from Antiqua, has done an exchange previously in Wisconsin when she was 11. They spent three days in Washington, D.C., before joining their host families in Colorado Springs.
During their stay, the students gave presentations at Divine Redeemer School and to their fellow classmates at St. Mary’s. The presentations included information about the history, culture, food, and geography of Guatemala. They talked about how school, parental expectations and tamales are different in the U.S.
“Tamales are one of our famous foods,” Sebastian said, “and my favorite food. But your American tamales are not our tamales. Our tamales are 10 times better than what you have here.”
Before Thanksgiving break, the students gave their presentations to Kim German’s freshman World Geography classes. German said that St. Mary’s international program provides its students real interactions with youth their age who live in countries and cultures very different from their own.
“St. Mary’s is one of the few schools in the city that still requires geography to graduate, and soon we will be studying South America, so it worked out perfectly,” German said. “After these presentations, the students will have some real life knowledge to use as we study what life is like in another country. I think the St. Mary’s students are interested to hear that school in some of these other countries is harder than school year.”
Over the years, St. Mary’s has hosted students from China, South Korea, Romania, Brazil, Italy, Poland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Austria, Russia, Columbia, Japan, and Vietnam. St. Mary’s international program offers a one-year academic program, as well as a diploma program in which students spend multiple years at St. Mary’s with the goal of earning a diploma. The “Faces & Our Culture” exchange is cultural, but the students are still expected to attend classes during their stay.
Emi, Martin, and Sebastian all said that they see a future for themselves in the U.S. Sebastian would like to attend university here and go to medical school to be surgeon. Emi would like to attend university in Spain, but eventually settle here. Martin also would like to live in the U.S. when he grows up.
“I love my country, and plan to go to college in Guatemala, but I want to live here someday when I grow up. Maybe get my postgraduate degree here,” he said. “That’s part of why I wanted to come on this exchange. I’ve been coming here every year and going to amusement parks, but I wondered what it was like to live here. I wondered what schools are like here, and I was interested in the cultural part as well as the academic part.”
The students at St. Mary’s have always been welcoming of international students, and that was no different with the students from Guatemala. Steve Bodnar, whose family hosted Sebastian, saw first hand how Sebastian was drawn into the community.
“I was so happy to see how the St. Mary’s community embraced Sebastian,” said Bodnar, who is chair of St. Mary’s board of directors. “In his first week here, our drama director, Noel Jenkins, told Sebastian the that cast and crew of the fall plays were ‘smitten’ with him and wanted to know if he’d be interested in being in the play. It was such a joy to watch them all embrace him during the rehearsals and performances of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’”
Another connection for Sebastian came one Sunday at Our Lady of the Pines Parish. At the end of Mass, Father Andrzej Szczesnowicz asked that anyone who was there for the first time tell the congregation where they were from.
“When it was his turn, Sebastian let everyone know he was from Guatemala. Immediately after Mass, Coach Masterson (of St. Mary’s boys’ basketball), who was sitting in front of us, turned around with his wife and engaged Sebastian in conversation — in Spanish! It has been heartwarming to see him welcomed in so many ways,” Bodnar said.
While the international students and St. Mary’s gain from meeting and learning together, the host families say that sharing their lives with the international students is a life-changing experience. Christine Baldwin, who is hosting Martin, said that hosting a student is a great way for a family to experience new and enlightening opportunities. It is an experience that the Baldwins would definitely recommend to others.
“For our family to be part of a student’s journey of learning and discovering new ways, new people, and a new culture opens all of our hearts and minds to the ways of others, hopefully making us better and more compassionate people in the process,” Baldwin said.
Hosting international students who are attending St. Mary’s High School isn’t just for families with students who already attend St. Mary’s. Robyn Cross, director of the international program at St. Mary’s, said that any family interested in hosting an international student is welcomed to apply, including those with students at St. Mary’s partner parochial schools. Interested families should contact Cross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Amy G. Partain is Director of Communications for St. Mary’s High School.)