Two Teens Traveled 7,000 Miles To Study At NLHS

By Alaina Bartel
Record Staff Writer

Gaia Vecchiet and Saruta Wongsathapornchai have a few things in common. They have both visited more than thirteen countries, and they both traveled more than 7,000 miles to study at New London High School.

Gaia, a junior, and Saruta, a sophomore, are foreign exchange students through the American Field Service Intercultural program, or AFS, and are living with their host-family, Tonya and John Brown in New London.

The Brown’s have hosted ten students before the pair, but these two almost didn’t get a chance to study here: they were two of seven students that haadn’t been placed yet. Brown received an email from AFS asking if she would be interested in hosting one.

“They email me and they say, ‘these students aren’t going to be able to see the states, they’re not going to have the opportunity,’ and then I can’t stand it,” Tonya said. “I was only going to take one and then when I talked to the representative, she said one would be fine, but if I had two, since my husband and I are elderly, they would have somebody to be with.”

Gaia is from Gorizia, Italy-a town and commune in northeastern Italy, in the autonomous region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. It is the capital of the Province of Gorizia and houses more than 142,000 people.

“There are more people, and there are more shops,” she said, comparing her hometown to New London. “There is farmland, but it is outside of the city.”

A typical day for Gaia in Italy consisted of waking up, eating breakfast, saying goodbye to her dog Ajvar and cat Tigre, then hopping on a train to go to school in a different city. After school, she would go to swim practice, take the train back home, do homework, and then go to bed. She said her days back home are similar to her new schedule, minus the train, and instead of swimming practice, she goes to cross-country practice with Saruta.

Despite the similarities, she said school here is much different from school in Italy. The students in Gorizia don’t have to get up and move to a different class every period-instead, they stay in their classroom, and the teachers move. Gaia said she likes a lot of things at her new school.

“It’s like the movies. Like the lockers, and the fact that we have to change classes. And the thing where you drink water. The teachers are nice here. Italian teachers are so much insane, like crazy about what they have to teach. They are more friendly here,” she said.

Saruta noticed the same difference with her school day back home, as the teachers move and students stay in the classroom. At her school in Bangkok, Thailand, she also had to wear a uniform-which she doesn’t prefer.

Bangkok has over six million people, which is part of the reason that Saruta woke up at 5 a.m. to start her school day.

“Back home, I have to get up really early because it’s a big city. If I get up late, I’ll be late for school,” she said.

Tonya observed Saruta’s behavior carry over from Thailand, as she wakes up an hour before she has to. On Friday’s, when she has an early cross-country practice, Saruta wakes up at 4 a.m., with chocolate milk in one hand and a book in the other.

“She gets up an hour before she has to. She still does. She said she prepares by reading. She said her brain catches more by reading in the morning,” Tonya said.

Saruta said her favorite part about school here is changing classes, so she can visit with friends in the hallways. Particularly when she changes from her hardest class, English, to her favorite class, American History.

“I have vocabulary tests, and I say to my friend, ‘it’s really hard,’ and my friend said, ‘yeah it’s hard for me, and I speak English,’” she said.

Saruta said her family was excited for her adventure to the USA, but were a little nervous, especially since she’s the only girl in her family. She said her 20 and 21-year-old brothers' had no desire to study abroad.

“They were excited about it, but I think my mom worries about me, like I will meet bad people or something like that,” Saruta said.

However, she has noticed just the opposite.

“The people here are so friendly. They ask, ‘can you remember my name,’ and I say ‘oh no I can’t.’ I can’t even remember their faces,” she said.

Gaia said her family felt the same way.

“They were excited because my mom loves to travel, so she was more excited than me. They were, I think, a little scared about it, but they were so happy for me,” Gaia said.

Although their love for traveling brought them here, their adventure doesn’t only include New London. Tonya plans to take them to Cedar Point, Las Vegas, and Florida to visit Clearwater Beach, Disney World, and the Everglades.

The pair start their journeys home on June 26 to finish high school in their home countries, although Gaia said she hopes to return to the U.S. to study design in college. Saruta said she hasn’t thought about college, but if she did decide to go, she said maybe she would go to England to study photography.

Gaia said her advice to anyone wanting to study abroad or travel is to be brave.

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