First Person

Editor's blog: Hosting an exchange student

Two weeks from today I will lose a daughter, and regain an only child.

Love is a Gamble puzzle
An aptly named puzzle completed by our exchange student

Our 17-year-old Serbian exchange student Nevena will  fly home after a year living with us and going to a non-traditional Boulder high school for the  2010-2011 school year.

During these nine-plus months, she has become part of our crazy little Boulder family, filling our house with fashion, Facebook and song (a very loud rendition of “Jolene” by Dolly Parton with a slight Serb accent is a recent favorite).

These final days are proving to be full of emotional upheaval played out with short fuses, big laughs, tickle attacks, the beginning of what is sure to be a flood of tears, and many, many trips to Ripple, our favorite self-serve frozen yogurt joint and healer of all woes.

From family of three to family of four – and back

We have supported her as if she was our own child, attending school events and helping as needed with homework. We bought a colorful 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle and a stash of good chocolate, which helped her get through the most grueling month of January. We even sped up our decision to become truly American and buy a big-screen TV and sign up for Netflix. (We still use a rabbit ear antenna, though..)

Sisters, now and forever

Early on, we enrolled Nevena in Frequent Flyers, an aerial dance program after detecting a love of daring – yet potentially glamorous – feats.  We pushed  her to take the risk of making new friends (the hardest thing to do in a new country). In recent weeks, that has finally happened. She just returned from shopping on Pearl Street with a friend and has towering, golden Steve Madden heels to prove it. Knowing of her interest in international affairs, we hooked her up with Model United Nations. We shared in her excitement when she and a Japanese teammate brought home a trophy.

We took her skiing and signed her up for lessons. Never mind the bent ski pole. She learned to ice skate in America. She went on her first overnight camping trip with her CAP (Community Adventure Program) class at New Vista High School. At Christmas-time, Santa brought Nevena and our 8-year-old daughter Milena stockings plump with gifts. Same thing with the Easter bunny. We helped her carve her first pumpkin at Halloween. We took a spring break trip to Florida, baking on the beach and checking out the wild artwork of Salvador Dali. I took her shopping for prom dresses, and doted upon her with camera in hand as she appeared, looking like a Grecian goddess. Early on, my friend, a pilot, took her flying (turns out that was definitely against American Councils for International Education rules…. Oops!)

Most recently, we walked and jogged the Bolder Boulder, indoctrinating her in a very unique American ritual to celebrate Memorial Day. She now has God Bless the U.S.A. by Lee Greenwood stuck in her brain. She is proud to be a Serb with part-American heart.

Why did we do this?

We always wanted two children, but fate did not agree. Being host parents to Nevena gave us the opportunity. And over these months, we have fallen in love with her. I will always think of her as my Balkan daughter. Not only did she share her incredible spirit with us, she gave Milena a sister to hug and to harass, and a new way to think about her unusual name. Milena no longer talks about wanting to change her name to “Rachel.”

To parents of only children in particular, I highly recommend hosting an international student.

It’s not easy. Turns out having a person live with you for a year is the same as holding up a giant mirror and seeing – in sometimes disturbing relief – all the things you don’t like about yourself and your family. Truthfully, though, I’m thankful for that, too, because we needed to make some changes and we are now working on them.

This photo begs the question: How did we pass the background screening?

We decided very late in the game to host a foreign student. We had it in the back of our minds to have an exchange student when our daughter was in high school and when we were sure to be expert “parents of teens.” But our friends sent a pleading e-mail about Nevena, who is here on a scholarship from the U.S. State Department-sponsored A-SMYLE (American Serbia and Montenegro Youth Leadership Exchange) program. Her original placement had fallen apart. We looked at her sweet yet serious face and imagined her in Serbia with bags packed and nowhere to go. My husband is Serbian-American so there was a cultural connection, too. After five days of vigorous discussion, we said “OK.” Somehow, we passed the background screening and Nevena arrived exactly one week later. It felt then, as it feels now, “meant to be.”

As brutal as it is to see her go, her return home is also meant to be. I can only imagine how her mother and father must be counting the minutes until they can wrap their arms around this most wonderful person. We don’t know if we’ll ever see her again – but my gut says “yes.” I don’t believe Milena would have it any other way.

So, this is my blog post to say goodbye to Nevena and and to encourage parents to think about hosting an international student. It’s worth the risk. Some of the rewards are obvious, others I am sure we will continue to discover long after she leaves.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.