By Rachael Bouley Oct 1, 2018
Grace Wanebo is a proud supporter of exploring foreign countries and cultures. After all, she left her life at Arcadia High School behind to spend her sophomore year in Ostia, Italy as part of an American Field Service (AFS) foreign exchange program.
In the beautiful beachside town outside of Rome, Grace stepped out of her comfort zone and embraced a new home, school and language. Although it was a big move, she knew she was reaching for her goals, considering she had wanted to be an exchange student since eighth grade.
“I wanted to do something challenging and adventurous besides going through the motions of regular high school,” Grace said. “I really wanted to learn another language and be able to converse with locals.”
Although she had visited Italy when she was younger, what 12-year-old Grace experienced on her travels was much different than the reality of living and going to school in a foreign place with an unfamiliar language. Despite her initial nerves, she embraced the opportunity and settled into life with her host parents and three siblings, who encouraged her to practice her Italian.
“My relationships with the people made me fall more in love with the country,” she said. “I remember the first day my host parents took me out to ice cream, and they made me order Gelato in Italian, which I could barely speak.”
At the start of her journey, Grace knew the very basics of Italian, and she could exchange greetings and pleasantries. She would slowly but surely catch on to the language, and by the time her program was over, she surprised herself with how much she had learned, thanks in large part to her dedication and persistent practice with her teachers.
“I remember this one moment in philosophy when our teacher was talking about Plato and Aristotle. Suddenly I realized I could understand what she was saying!”
Despite understandable challenges, like nerves over not knowing the language and occasional homesickness, Grace would do it all over again in a heartbeat. She learned so much about her hosts’ ways of life, from their food culture — they don’t use knives at the dinner table and eat cereal from cups rather than bowls — to their nighttime rituals — they believed going to sleep with wet hair caused back and neck aches.
“I gained a sense of how other people live around the world, especially because I was with a lot of international exchange students from Turkey, Indonesia and Romania,” Grace said. “It made me more empathetic and understanding of all cultures, as well as more flexible and open to change.”
Since returning home, Grace has used this empowering and eye-opening experience to encourage others to challenge themselves and pursue their dreams of going abroad. She hopes to lend support to other exchange students studying in Phoenix, because she’s been in their shoes.
“I know how difficult it is to be on exchange, so I want to help others because it’s easy for me to sympathize with what they’re going through.”
She’s also sharing her cultural awareness with fellow students through Scottsdale Unified School District programs like UniTown, which allow her to talk about social and international issues.
Grace plans to return to Italy to reconnect with her host family and friends, as well as pick up another language and study abroad again in college. Reflecting on her time in Italy, Grace has a message for fellow students that are considering studying abroad.
“I would say to jump on that opportunity and do it, because the idea is daunting and scary at first, but you won’t regret it. It’s an incredible experience that will change your life for your better.”