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An international perspective

This Friday, the vibrant aroma of Mediterranean spices, South American stews and Chinese stir-fries will fill the Mercer Island High School commons. The murmur of foreign languages will blend with the universal sound of laughter. Students from Norway will chat with students from Azerbaijan. Islanders will share dinner with Chileans, Italians and Japanese. This, according to school counselor Susie Brown, is what the MIHS International Festival is all about.

“It’s just a really neat time for our kids to meet kids from other countries in a school setting,” said Brown, who is organizing the event with social studies teacher Karen Sherwood.

The three-day festival invites 90 exchange students from across the state of Washington to stay with MIHS teenagers and their families. The students will gather at MIHS for a potluck and “international” dance on Friday, April 11, and celebrate their individuality in a talent show on Saturday. The annual event, which dates back to the 1970s, has become a favorite for MIHS students.

Yet April is not the only month when Islanders mingle with students from across the globe. MIHS has eight exchange students who walk the school’s hallways every day. Erika Casarotto and Catherine Rodriguez are two of them.

In addition to being international students, Casarotto, a senior from Milan, Italy, and Rodriguez, from a town outside Santiago, Chile, are close friends. The girls met at a party for international students and bonded immediately.

“I think it’s easier to be friends with exchange students. You have the same experience and can share stories about your families,” Rodriguez said, adding that she also socializes with MIHS students.

“It’s hard to make friends at the beginning,” Rodriguez explained. “Students here have had their friends since the first grade. But once you get more confident and speak English better, it’s fine. Now, I’m having a lot of fun.”

Since moving to the Island in August, Rodriguez has overcome the bumps of adjusting not only to an American high school, but to a surprisingly incubated society.

“The United States is like a bubble. They don’t have a lot of news about other countries. They have strange news — about a cat stuck in a tree, not about what is happening in Germany,” Rodriguez said. “In Chile, we have more news about the rest of the world.”

The Chilean said this is what surprised her most about Americans.

“You have the impression that the United States is really open minded,” she explained. “But when I arrived, I got the impression that Americans don’t know that much about the world.”

Rodriguez added that this observation was true even on Mercer Island.

“A lot of teenagers have the impression that South America starts and ends in Mexico. When they ask about Chile — ‘Where is Chile?’ — you have to start explaining everything,” the senior said, adding that she isn’t offended by the questions. In fact, she enjoys teaching her peers about Chile. It gives her a sense of identity and pride.

“Especially now that I’m here, I’m prouder of Chile and love my country more,” she said.

Casarotto also enjoys sharing her Italian culture with friends and her host family. Her host mother, Deborah Dain, speaks basic Italian and is thankful for the opportunity to practice her skills with Casarotto.

“She’s very open and enthusiastic about meeting people and trying things,” said Dain, whose three daughters have since graduated from MIHS. “It’s nice having another teenager at home.”

Casarotto has lived with Dain and her husband, James Owens, since Christmas. The Italian spent first semester with a host family in Seattle, attending Garfield High School. She transferred to MIHS in January.

“We liked her so much and she liked us, and it looked like she’d be really happy at MIHS,” Dain said. “It has worked out really well for all of us.”

Over spring break, the Island couple brought Casarotto and Rodriguez to Vancouver, British Columbia, for a weekend getaway. Visiting different regions in North America, Casarotto said, has been the most exciting part of her exchange student experience.

“I went to California for Thanksgiving. I went to L.A., and it was exactly like it was in the movies,” she said.

In Casarotto’s opinion, Hollywood has been dead-on in portraying America.

“We [Italians] know everything about America from the movies. If I had to go to China, I wouldn’t have been prepared. But to live here is exactly how it is in the movies,” she said.

Yet there are some differences. The high school academic system, for example.

Both girls agreed that, even at Washington’s most reputed public high school, the courses are “much easier” than those in their home countries. But there is a flip side; MIHS offers a more diverse and flexible curriculum.

“Here you have a lot of classes and switch all the time,” Casarotto said. “In Italy, you stay with the same classmates for five years. It’s fun here; it’s new.”

In particular, Casarotto and Rodriguez appreciate that sports are offered at MIHS. In their home countries, athletic opportunities are only available outside of school.

“I really, really like that all the people are involved in sports, music and theater,” Casarotto said.

A stellar swimmer, Casarotto has been able to continue training on the Chinook swim team. Since joining the private Eastside team, the swimmer, whose strength is breast-stroke, has won every event in her competition.

“She’s a really good swimmer, and they are thrilled to have her,” Dain said.

Rodriguez is also involved with sports. She ran on the MIHS cross-country team in the fall quarter and is currently trying out tennis.

In between academics and sports, the girls are simply enjoying life on the Island and the Eastside.

“I really like to go to Bellevue Square,” Casarotto said. “Oh, and Costco’s really cool. I love going there.”

“This is the best place I could be because I love grunge music,” Rodriguez chimed in. “So Seattle is perfect for me.”

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