Portage, Spanish students ‘learn to listen’ in school exchange
Angela Fernandez hadn’t even set foot in Portage before finding her most memorable experience here.
She and 14 of her peers had completed an eight-hour flight from Leon, Spain, to Chicago, waited another six hours for their delayed flight to leave for Madison and then took an hour-long bus ride to Portage High School, where host families cheered and held cardboard signs adorned with Christmas lights.
“The first thing we saw were all of these Americans waiting for us,” the 16-year-old remembered of their late-night arrival Sept. 8. “We were so tired and feeling so many emotions and also seeing such a big school compared to ours.
In those few moments on a stopped bus, “We realized what we were about to experience,” she said.
Exchange students from Lancia High School will depart Portage on Monday after just over two weeks of lessons in language and culture. Their Portage counterparts in the spring complete the year’s exchange that Portage High School started in 2016-17, held every other year and on opposite years of the school’s German exchange.
During their stay, Spanish students gave presentations about their country to Bartels Middle School students, attended a Milwaukee Brewers game, kayaked at Devil’s Lake State Park, toured the Capitol building and State Street in Madison and enjoyed Kalahari Resorts in Wisconsin Dells, among other activities.
Lancia’s student population of 600 is similar to Portage’s roughly 800, but Leon’s population of 126,000 is significantly larger than Portage’s.
“The exchange opens our minds,” said Valeria Medina, who’s staying with the family of Portage senior Tess Wilson. Differences provide useful perspective. Unlike Portage, Medina noted, Lancia does not possess a gymnasium, extracurricular clubs or standalone rooms for classes like music. Most of the students live in apartments and flats, added Celia Mendez, and so “homes seem bigger and even the distances between places seem huge.”
“We’ve done a lot of walking,” Mendez said.
Fernandez and the others have seen cultural differences ranging from strange meal practices to the lack of physical contact between Americans.
“It is shocking how little physical contact there is,” she said, as Portage Spanish teacher Beth Loomis explained how in Spain everyone greets each other with two kisses.
Americans, it seems, each have their “personal space bubbles,” Loomis said.
Families in Spain set very specific periods for their meals, Medina noted, but in America, “They more or less eat whenever they’re hungry.”
The food itself isn’t much different, the students said, though in Spain there’s more variety. The only food Medina had tried for the first time in America was sushi.
“We definitely eat out more in America,” Wilson realized of cultural differences. “And we eat more processed foods.”
As a host, Wilson said she’s learning about the world — that America is much different from other places, though people generally aren’t so different. She applied for the program because her sister enjoyed it in 2016 and she wanted to experience it for herself.
“People seem to share the same characteristics, and we connect even when there’s a language barrier,” Wilson said. She and Medina have formed a close enough bond they expected to visit each other’s home countries for years to come
In Portage, Medina said, “Everybody has an open mind,” and that’s similar to home. Students had encountered no stereotypes in their trip to America, Fernandez added, and that was surprising.
“One would have guessed that being from Spain, Americans would have a preconceived idea about what we’re like, but it’s not like that at all,” Fernandez said. “The people here take into account the different opinions and points of view.”
An experience like the exchange “teaches you to be more respectful, and you learn to listen and understand others,” Fernandez said. She said she already knows she’ll remember the experience for the rest of her life — amazed by how quickly friendships were formed in Portage.
They grew closer to each other, too, the Spanish students agreed. After Portage, they’ll spend a few more close-quartered days together in New York City.
“This really is about forming relationships,” Loomis said of the exchange program. “Relationships are how you learn about cultures and understand the world is a big place.
“For my students learning Spanish, they see that the language is not something that sits on a piece of paper,” Loomis said.
“It lives and breathes.”