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An exchange student experiences Pagosa Springs

For the past 20 years, the Pagosa Springs Noon Rotary Club has sponsored incoming foreign exchange students. The “Morning” Rotary Club, formed three years ago, has also hosted two foreign exchange students. These students come from all over the world. Both clubs also sponsor, in addition, “outbound” youth exchange students from Pagosa Springs High School. The “outbound” program has both a one-year exchange and a month-long summer exchange.

Pagosa will be sending two high school students on the outbound program this summer. Heather Brook, daughter of Angela and Yul Wilson, will be spending a year abroad in Thailand. Heather will be sponsored by the noon club. The morning club is also sponsoring an outbound student. Alex Schultz, son of Cindy Schultz, will spend his year in India.

Rotary Youth Exchange is a club-to-club program which promotes peace through better understanding via the exchange of high school students who are hosted by Rotary clubs and families. The program aims to enable students to acquire knowledge of life in their host community and to promote the general interest and good will of international exchange.

Annually, over 7,500 young people participate in exchanges supported by Rotary clubs in 80 nations. Youth exchange continues to grow and it is regarded as one of Rotary’s most popular and enduring programs.

Natalie Gnecchi, 18 years old, arrived in Pagosa Springs last August from Lecco, a small town on Lake Como in northern Italy, to spend a year in Pagosa under the sponsorship of the Pagosa Springs Noon Rotary Club. Natalie’s first host family was the Wilsons — Terry, Lvonne and Shea. After sharing her first three months in Pagosa with the Wilsons, Natalie is now with her second host family — the Scotts — Bob, Lisa, Dean, Spence and Diana.

The beauty of the mountains comes as no surprise to Natalie, as her home town of Lecco is surrounded by the Alps. Being right at home in Pagosa is further enhanced by the warmth and welcome both host families have given to Natalie. Although she misses her family in Italy — her dad, who is a mechanical engineer, mom, who is a retired landscape artist, and two siblings 9 and 21 — the Wilsons and Scotts have filled that space in Natalie’s heart with all that has gone on and is going on in the lives of busy, involved and traditional American families.

When asked what she and her host families like to do together, Natalie’s eyes lit up as she described horse riding with the Wilson family and learning a bit about Parelli Natural Horsemanship techniques from Terry. Natalie participates in horse show jumping competitions back home in Italy with her horse, Ready to Go. A novelty for her is the western saddle — and of her first host dad, she said, “I’m so happy that I met Terry so we can exchange our ideas about horses … he is an awesome natural horseman and host dad.” Of the rest of the family, Natalie said, “I loved spending my time with my first host sister, Shea, who is my age, talking about teenager stuff and doing things with her and her friends. We are really close and I hope that our relationship will be like this forever. Lvonne is an awesome host mum, I love to talk to her and I am not afraid to confide my problems and secrets to her. She is a fabulous person. I helped her two or three times at her store (Home Again) and it was fun working with Lvonne. I hope I can do it again … she taught me how to use dollars and coins and how to work the cash drawer.”

Natalie moved in with the Scotts in December and her life is now shared with three host siblings, all younger than she. “Me and the Scotts like to go skiing every Sunday and I’m really enjoying it. They are really good skiers and snowboarders.” Natalie’s family in Italy are also avid skiers and snowboarders and they pursue their hobby at a ski area, an hour away from her hometown. “I do a lot of activities with the Scotts: I drove snowmobiles and racers … They are sportive people and know how to play most sports. They also love animals and they have four dogs, two cats and several horses. Bob, my host dad, does horse roping, and Diana, my host sister, does barrels. I hope that I will learn something about it to improve my knowledge about horses. Otherwise, Dean and Spence, my host brothers, are good wrestlers and I hope to learn something about it too — so I can protect myself if needed. Lisa (my host mom) invites over a lot of her children’s friends. We do activities together. I have been with the Scotts only for one month, but I feel really confident with them.”

I would say Natalie has an excellent match with both host families. Incidentally, the Scotts have hosted many Rotary exchange students and as a result, their children have an expanded and rich world view.

My interview with Natalie follows:

Why did you decide to be an exchange student?

“I decided to be an exchange student because I really wanted to see a different culture, learn different traditions, have a different year of my life that I would remember forever, be an international girl and learn to speak another language.”

Tell us about your school in Italy?

“My Italian school is so different — I must spend five years in high school, I don’t have a locker to put my stuff in, I must buy books, I don’t change classroom every block, I stay in the same classroom with the same people for five years of high school. Teachers change classroom every hour. I cannot choose my classes, but before being a freshman, I had to choose a school — Scientific, Linguistic, Artistic or Classic. I picked the Scientific one. Our grades are on a scale of 0 to 10 — 10 equals an A. If I have less than 6 as a grade in 3 different subjects, I will fail the year and will have to repeat. If I get one or two or three 6 as grades, I have to take the same number of exams — and if I fail only one of them I will repeat the year. We don’t have any sport teams at school — you choose a sport organization in the city. Our school doesn’t organize any dances. And before I graduate, I will take three days of writing exams plus one day of speaking about all the classes I have taken during my fifth year of school.”

What have you found here in Pagosa that you did not expect or that surprised you?

“I did not expect that Pagosa was so spread out and that everybody are hunters.”

What are your future plans for study and work?

“I am sure I will study in a university and stay in Italy. I love the USA so maybe I will take part in a one year university exchange. Being in Pagosa is making my ideas more clear about myself and my future life.”

If you would like to look into the organization behind Rotary International Youth Exchange, you can contact Jann Pitcher (731-4065) or Robert Soniat (731-3777) who will be happy to help in your desire to embark on this adventure.

Or, if you would like to host an exchange student for three months, speak with Jann or Robert. Jann has been closely involved with the Rotary Youth Exchange program since 1991 when she arranged for the club’s first exchange student from Norway to live in Pagosa and attend school for a year. In short, Jann and her husband, Todd, are “parents” to many international students.

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