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Lucia Cerrato, an Effingham High School foreign exchange student from Italy, is shown with her host mom, Myra Oltman, while exploring Chicago.

Lucia Cerrato: 'Everything I expected and more'

In August, when Lucia Cerrato was on her way from Fossano, Italy, to Effingham, she dreamt of what America would be like.

She had traveled before, but never to America. She did not know what to expect, but claimed a certain movie gave her an idea.

“I imagined it would be like High School Musical,” admits Lucia.

She wasn’t far off.

The 2006 Disney Channel hit movie highlights the topics of school spirit, high school cliques, the challenges of fitting in and the importance of finding one’s passion.

According to Lucia, Effingham High School has offered her a similar experience.

She may not be involved in any musicals this school year, but she feels that her experience so far has been like the movies.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to see what schools are like here in America,” explained Lucia. “You go to school and you have your athletes, drama club, cheerleaders, all the tables at lunch are separated into different groups. Just like the movies. There’s also such a strong sense of school spirit here. There’s t-shirts with the school name on them. We don’t have stuff like that back home.”

Lucia grew up in a town with a population of 2,500 people. She claims it’s similar to Effingham, except that “everything is just closer together and not as spread out.”

Lucia was born to two loving parents -- Paolo and Laura -- and grew up with two older brothers -- Iacopo and Nicolo

A lot of Lucia’s time in Italy is spent going to a school that focuses on Linguistics. She is currently studying German, French and English languages.

Her school in Italy does not offer sports or a variety of extracurricular activities like the schools here in America do. High school in Italy typically spans a five-year period and she attends class Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. Since classes end at 1 p.m., she does not experience a school lunch.

Every Monday consists of the same schedule, but the schedule changes day to day. Lucia also has had the same classmates with her all the way through high school. Unlike here in the U.S., she has the same classmates for every class. In Italy, the teacher changes per class, but the classroom and classmates stay the same.

She is a junior and has one more year of school back home. She has five years of high school and plans to move onto a university and study abroad after graduation.

“The school system is so different back home. I have known the kids in my class for years and we don’t have as many groups (cliques). But both have advantages and disadvantages. I can’t pick which system I like best, but I do like that I got to experience high school in a way that I wouldn’t have back home,” she explained.

Part of this “unique high school experience” involved experiencing her first Homecoming. Lucia was able to get dressed up and attend the Homecoming dance and also road on a float with the French Club during the Homecoming parade.

“We have dances at school back home, but Homecoming was a different experience. The Homecoming experience was all about school spirit,” explained Lucia. “I’m not one for dances and dressing up all girly, but Homecoming was more than just a dance. I was in the parade and then there’s the football game and everyone goes to cheer on the team. It really was what I thought the American experience would be like.”

It was this American experience that Lucia was hoping she would get when she first decided to look into traveling to America.

Last Christmas, Lucia was talking to a friend who had just got back from a trip to California when she got the idea of looking into a foreign exchange program.

“She explained to me how great of an experience it was and how much fun she had,” said Lucia. “She made it seem like such a great experience.”

 After having this conversation, she discussed the topic with her parents who encouraged the idea. That’s when Lucia started to look into the “EF Student Exchange” program.

This would not be Lucia’s first time traveling, though.

Lucia has seen the pyramids in Egypt, the coast line of Africa, attended an international school program in England and has also spent time in France and Spain.

“I’ve always really enjoyed traveling. I remember telling my mom that I wanted to travel to America one day because it would be so cool. I like being by myself and experiencing new things in new places,” said Lucia.

It was these traveling experiences that have helped her adjust to making friends wherever she goes.

“I really enjoy meeting new people,” Lucia added. “It’s funny because I feel like I have more foreign friends than I do back in Italy. I have traveled with my parents before, but I have also traveled by myself. I’m very shy so traveling by myself forces me to be more talkative and meet more people. It pushes me to be more social.”

Since arriving in America in August, Lucia has developed many relationships. Through classes and French Club, she has made friends with many students at Effingham High School.

“I always try to introduce myself to as many people as possible and that usually helps me make friends,” explained Lucia.

Another relationship she has made is the one with her host family.

Lucia has been staying with Paul and Myra Oltman.

Paul and Myra have two daughters, one who has moved away and the other is at college. Lucia has become a temporary daughter to the couple who has hosted four other foreign exchange students in the past.

“They really do become part of the family,” explained Myra. “I treat Lucia like she is my daughter. She helps with dishes and cleans her own room.”

Lucia and Myra even joked about a past conversation they had to have when Lucia received a bad grade on an assignment.

“We had to have a talk about the grade,” explained Lucia.

“I explained to her, like I would if it was one of my daughters, that she doesn’t have to be the best, but I expect her to at least try her best and she did. So that’s all I can want as a mom,” Myra added.

Myra and Paul have also tried their best to make Lucia’s experience in Effingham a memorable one. The family went and visited Chicago two weeks ago and Lucia can barely hold back the joy she received from the spontaneous trip.

“I love Chicago. Went to the art institute and really enjoyed the different styles that were represented in the museum,” said Lucia. “We get to study about art back home, but it was so cool to go to a museum that was so big and had a lot of different styles. It made for one of my favorite memories so far.”

When Lucia is not exploring the Chicago city life with her host family, she is joking with her host mom as she slowly tries to teach Myra the basics of the Italian language. Myra has been to Italy on four separate occasions. Paul understands Italian, but does not speak it, so Lucia enjoys sitting around the table teaching them.

Lucia also loves to bond with Myra over the love for cooking. Lucia has been able to cook some Italian traditions -- carbonara, lasagna and tiramisu -- for her host family. Even though some of the translations for measuring ingredients can be a challenge for Lucia, she has managed just fine.

Lucia’s parents will be traveling to the States to visit the first week of December and she is looking forward to having her two families meet, even though she will have to play the role of translator since her parents don’t know much English.

“My parents have never been to America before so I’m looking forward to giving them the American experience,” said Lucia. “We’ll get to have a nice dinner and I’ll show them this new life I’ve created here in America.”

Lucia will be traveling back to Italy in January, but plans to keep connections with friends and her host family. And she definitely plans to visit again in the future.

“Though we still have a couple months left with her, I know it will be hard to watch her leave. It’s always hard seeing them leave,” said Myra. “They really do become like your children, but it’s great to have them keep in touch and to see them grow up into wonderful adults.”

“I will miss the people, the town and my host family so much. This American experience has almost been like I have been able to start a new life for myself,” Lucia added. “It’s been like one great movie. It has been everything I expected and more.”

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