Brazilian exchange student enjoying life in US

Maria Barros, center, with her host family, from left: Riley, Jeremy, Brenda and Shelby Tesch. TCR/KRISTIN BURDEY
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When her plane landed in the LaCrosse airport on August 22, Maria Barros was more than ready for her new adventure. While this was Barros’ fourth time arriving in the United States, it was the first time she would be coming as an exchange student.

Sixteen-year-old Barros is a junior at RPHS this semester. Her host family is Jeremy and Brenda Tesch family, who also hosted her brother Hermon three years before her.

Barros hails from Belo Horizonte, or ‘beautiful horizon’, the capital city of Minas Gerais in Brazil. Her home city was the first planned modern city in Brazil, and with a population of over 2.5 million is now part of the third most-populous metropolitan area in the country- a stark contrast from her present surroundings.

While her native language is Portugese, Barros began learning English when she was ten.  This is very common for elementary students in Brazil, and one of the main reasons Barros wanted to be an exchange student was to improve her mastery of the English language.

Barros stressed that living in the US and being immersed in an English-speaking culture is much different than simply learning the language in a classroom. She said that the best jobs back home require fluency in English, which is also one of the requirements to take part in the Program of Academic Exchange, or PAX. A strong scholastic performance is also required, as are the demonstration of appropriate maturity and motivation.

Host mom Brenda Tesch emphasizes that Rushford-Peterson School is an excellent partner in the program, hosting exchange students every year for decades. Among the reasons for RP’s success in this area include an adequate number of families in the community willing to host students, a school faculty that prioritize working with the students, and a student body that helps with the social aspects of life in the US. These qualities insure that visiting international students are included in the day-to-day life at RPHS.

Barros is enjoying her course-load at RP, taking a variety of classes from English to ceramics. The most challenging class for her is Social Studies, due to the amount of unfamiliar terminology. “I have to use the Google translator a lot in that class,” Barros confesses. Her favorite classes are math and chemistry, as she plans to pursue a career in engineering.

Barros’s parents place a high value on the importance of education, as her father, Tilton, is an electrical engineer, and her mother Estela is a dentist. The Barros’ have seen to it that their two children have been afforded the best educational opportunities through private schooling.

The private school Barros attends back home has 5000 students, so coming to Rushford-Peterson was quite a change. She is very happy with the size of the school. “It is good because most of the kids can get to know me, and most of the seniors remember my brother.” Barros is also quite fond of the new R-P School building, saying it looks “like a school you’d see in the movies.”

However, there are differences in the school day that have taken some getting used to. “(Back home) we have the same classroom for every subject. The students stay in the same room, and the teacher changes,” she said. Learning that when the bell rings, she must head to her locker, change books, and find her next classroom, was a bit tricky at first. Barros was also surprised to find that public schooling in America comes at essentially no cost to the student, a stark change from the high cost of primary education in Brazil.

However, at the collegiate level, the roles of the two countries reverse. By attending private school as children, students can earn high enough marks to be admitted into the prestigious public universities, such as the one her elder brother now attends. Public universities are paid for by the government in Brazil, therefore the hurdles to entry are not financial but academic.

Some of Barros’ favorite activities include summer fun like swimming at the pool or beach, riding bike, and hanging out with friends. Like most American girls, Barros also loves make-up and shopping. “The United States has the best stores,” she enthused. “It’s too expensive (in Brazil) because the economic system is not too good; the value of the dollar is better here.”

Barros has also been enjoying the Minnesotan food, particularly bagels, mac & cheese, French toast, and pizza, which is “better here than in Brazil.”

As the school year is set up differently in Brazil, Barros will leave Rushford at the end of January in order to rejoin her class and not fall behind. The timing will be just about perfect; Barros has been warned about Minnesota winters by her brother, and says a chilly day in Brazil is around sixty degrees.

In the meantime, Barros is looking forward to living out her semester to the fullest, dancing with the RP Dance Team and spending time with the new friends she has made here. Barros is also enjoying the opportunity to be the oldest child in the family, with host siblings Riley in 8th grade and Shelby in 5th. Barros has been delighted with her experience thus far...a beautiful city, a picturesque new school, a great host family. She smiles brightly and says, “I really like American life.”