Gaia Figus, who lives in Italy on a small Mediterranean island, relies on Google Translate to help her communicate with her host family, the Millers.
She types a question into her phone, which translates it to English. Gaia then reads the English words.
Sharla Miller and her daughter, Jenna, respond. If Gaia doesn’t know the right words to use, she’ll consult her phone.
“There is a language barrier, but the translator has been wonderful,” Sharla said. “She has the most difficulty finding the right adjectives.”
Gaia hopes to improve her English skills while she’s living with the Millers. She also wants to “have an experience.”
That experience so far has been limited because of the coronavirus, but the Millers and Gaia were able to travel to Branson recently. They introduced Gaia to the Ozark Mountain lifestyle in a city known as the Live Music Capital of the World. They ate at a Japanese hibachi grill, which was Gaia’s first time at such a restaurant. They also played miniature golf.
It was the first of many trips the Millers hope to take with Gaia. She wants to visit New York, because she’s a big fan of movies and the city is often featured as a prime destination.
First, though, she’ll need to attend school.
Gaia was the first of the five exchange students to arrive in Iola, which meant her quarantine period ended earlier than the others. She started Iola High School on Sept. 2.
It was quite a different experience than attending school in Italy, she said.
Back home, students stay in their classroom and the instructors come to them. They’ll study 10 to 12 subjects throughout the day, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Then, Gaia must travel to play volleyball. The team isn’t associated with the school system.
At IHS, Gaia’s day is much longer. She starts classes earlier, then stays after school for volleyball practice. It’s a long day.
“It’s very different,” Gaia said.
Changing classes was quite an adjustment. She had a difficult time finding her classes.
It helped that Jenna is a senior, and was able to ease the transition.
Jenna has introduced Gaia to several of her friends. Gaia also is getting to know her teammates on the volleyball team, which she said is much more competitive than she’s used to.
BOTH JENNA and Sharla wanted to host an exchange student, but ultimately it was Jenna’s decision.
After all, it’s Jenna’s senior year. Sharla wanted her daughter to decide whether to share that experience with someone from a different country.
Jenna was all in.
Two years ago, she befriended an exchange student from Spain who was attending Iola High School. She enjoyed spending time with her friend and thought it would be fun to host a foreign student.
She’s also traveled to other countries herself. Her grandmother has taken her to places in Europe including Prague in the Czech Republic and Budapest in Hungary.
Sharla thinks having so many foreign students in Iola will benefit not just the students and their host families but the entire community. She hopes it encourages IHS students to travel to other countries, too.
“It opens up a whole new world that a lot of these kids have never experienced,” Sharla said. “Bringing in someone from another country and another culture is wonderful for the community and for all the kids at the school.”