OPRF exchange designed to foster cultural understanding
Italian exchange student Alessia Orlandi and her host family's daughter Xenia Mansour chat while grabbing a bite to eat during a potluck dinner at the Mansour house. | Steve Johnston~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 15, 2012 11:58AM
OAK PARK — The mundane parts of every day life can be quite exciting through the eyes of a foreign visitor.
“The vegetables – they are always raw,” observed 16-year-old Italian student Alessia Orlandi.
“And she loves squirrels,” chimed in her new friend Xenia Mansour, 17, of Oak Park-River Forest High School. “She freaks out every time we see them.”
Mansour and Orlandi are paired together this year in a high school exchange program between Oak Park and a town just outside Florence, a program that began in 1988.
Between Oct. 22 and Nov. 2, local high schoolers hosted 26 peers from overseas.
In addition to having ample opportunity to practice their language skills, the students are experiencing life as a typical American teenager, which has involved excursions to Chicago and Six Flags, watching football games, and visiting shopping centers and fast food joints.
Both the Italian and American students have studied the others’ language for less than four years, learning new words while together.
Soccer fan Joe Tortorice, 17, is picking up new sports terminology from his guest Tommaso Aterini, 16.
Mansour realized while painting her nails with Orlandi that each finger on the hand has its own word in Italian.
School size and activities are the starkest difference for the Italian students.
“It’s bigger and very beautiful,” Aterini said of OPRF.
While the Oak Park institution sponsors 29 sports programs and 80 different teams, its sister school in Italy doesn’t host athletics at all.
Some of the teens’ interests – such as fashion and Facebook – transcend geographic borders. The social-networking site is equally popular back home, said the Italian teens, and has allowed the students to first “meet” online before face-to-face.
“We found out a lot of us with our exchange partners have a lot more in common than we thought we would,” said Myia Riley, 16.
While Riley has visited Rome once, she expects her visit with exchange partner, Valentina Brunetti, 16, will be different.
“I just want to see everything that we learned about in school,” she said.
Over spring break, Riley and her classmates will travel to Florence, with stops in Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano and Venice.
While both their older siblings had traveled abroad, Tortorice and Mansour will visit the country for the first time.
“The main thing for me is to see Italian soccer,” Tortorice said. “It’s a culture, a lifestyle, and that’s what I’m most excited about experiencing.”
French teacher Betsy Farley, who is also fluent in Italian, said the program fosters cross-cultural sharing and relationships that could last a lifetime.
She said OPRF alumni have invited their Italian peers to special events, such as their weddings.
“These exchanges are so important for the kids,” Farley said. “And when I go (to Italy), it’s like home.”
And to assuage any doubts about Chicago’s take on their cheesy pie, Orlandi said, “It’s not that bad.
“I’ve had a worst pizza in Italy.”