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The Insight

The Insight

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Exchange Students Visit Friends

Mauro Luis Penzo (left) and Bruno Carrasquilla

This November, Friends buzzed with excitement as the community welcomed its first-ever exchange students from Barcelona. For three weeks, six tenth graders from Colegio Sant Ignasi—a prestigious Jesuit school founded in 1892—lived with sophomore host students, going to classes, activities, and excursions all around the city. The visiting students were especially excited to try New York City’s famous food offerings and immerse themselves in the city’s festive transformation this holiday season.

The roles will swap next spring, when the same six Friends student hosts will travel to Barcelona from March 9-30 to learn more about Spanish culture. To be able to participate, the students needed to have completed at least Level-2 Spanish classes with a B+ average or higher. 

The program was constructed by Kara Kutner, the Director for Peace, Equity, and Justice, who has had many innovative ideas during her first two years at the school. She worked alongside the language department, as her primary goal for the project was to support language acquisition, but she also envisioned the exchange as a chance for students to foster intercultural understanding and make lifelong friends. Last week, I sat down with three of the exchange students – Mauro Luis Penzo, Bruno Carrasquilla, and Carlotta Gonzalez – who offered their insights and revealed that the first half of the program was a resounding success. 

From an academic perspective, the traveling students found that Friends is much more centered around student participation and involvement compared to their own school. “Here, we sit in circles,” Bruno explained. “Over there we sit in rows. The teacher talks and you take notes.” 

Our school provides more opportunities, resources, and liberty than does Colegio Sant Ignasi, our guests from Spain reported. Mauro noted that Peter Kalajian, with his interactive and ambitious teaching style, was his favorite teacher during his three weeks at Friends. Although the exchange students didn’t have to do homework or take tests, they were still expected to participate and take notes in their classes. 

The Spanish students were also excited by their off-campus lunch privileges, something they do not have at home and which allowed them to enjoy the many diverse food options near Union Square. 

Throughout their time here, Kara Kutner set up many special experiences for the students, like tickets to the critically acclaimed Broadway show, Kimberly Akimbo, and a tour of the United Nations. Bruno also got to climb the stairs of the Empire State Building. Besides the iconic skyscrapers and bustling energy, Carlotta said it was the city’s delicious food and welcoming people that truly resonated with her.

 New York food is a testament to the plethora of cultures that have flourished in this city (its residents hail from over 150 countries, according to the New York City Comptroller Office). Carlotta’s insight about the openness of New Yorkers also highlights an often-overlooked aspect of the city’s welcoming nature. In a world where so many people face constraints, New Yorkers are afforded the freedom to freely express their cultures, practice their religions, and embrace their individuality. 

For Bode Bulhak, a 10th grader at Friends, being a host encouraged him to explore the Big Apple and created many memorable experiences with Mauro. He told me, “You can live in a place and still find things interesting and discover new things. When I was with my exchange student, we went to the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. It was like being a tourist again. I wouldn’t have relived those experiences if it weren’t for Mauro.” 

One brisk afternoon, Bode, Mauro, and a couple others from the exchange program traveled to Staten Island and Ellis Island for audio tours. They floated back across the river under a sunset, and capped off the day at a restaurant in Soho, where Mauro tried his first ever soup dumplings. Looking ahead, Bode is excited to have similar experiences in Spain, meeting new people, and immersing himself in a new culture. The second half of the journey awaits, now less than four months away. 

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