Sao Paulo, Brazil is a long way from Bridgeport, Texas – but Bridgeport High School exchange student Raquel Vale says she is right at home in the Lone Star State.
The 17-year-old Brazilian student came to Bridgeport in August as a part of the high school’s foreign exchange program, where she stays with Principal Jaime Sturdivant, Sturdivant’s husband, Steve, and daughter Megan.
“There’s been a lot of differences, but it’s been fun,” Raquel said of her stay in America so far.
Raquel will stay with the Sturdivants for the entire school year, and will then return to Brazil to graduate from high school in Sao Paulo.
“One of the stipulations of the program is that she can’t go home during the entire year because they believe that will hinder her experience,” Sturdivant said.
Sturdivant was first approached to host an exchange student two years ago, but passed because that was the year her son Jared started college at the Air Force Academy.
“But, they kept calling, and last spring, we started the process and selected our student.”
Raquel hit the ground running, she said. Her first day in Texas was spent shopping at Target (she had never been to one before), trying Mexican food and exploring the Fort Worth Stockyards. The next day, she started two-a-days for volleyball.
“We don’t focus that much on sports in Brazil,” Raquel said. “We mostly just study, so all that enthusiasm took some getting used to. But it’s nice how everyone just teams up and supports each other.”
Sturdivant said the biggest thing she’s taken away from hosting Raquel is that teenagers are the same no matter where they’re from.
“We got to communicate with Raquel through Facebook and Skype for a while, and her and Megan were in constant contact before she got here,” she said. “Megan had planned out concerts they wanted to attend, and they like so much of the same stuff, and that’s been an interesting thing to realize that all teenagers have the same interests.”
“And the same problems,” Raquel added.
Megan, also a junior, said having Raquel around helps her focus more on her own schooling.
“She’s really smart, so she goes home and does her homework, so it makes me think, ‘Oh, I should do my homework too,’ and it pushed me to do better,” Megan said.
Raquel said the biggest differences she’s seen so far are how spread out Bridgeport is compared to Sao Paulo, and how busy American culture is compared to Brazilian culture.
“The driving age in Brazil is 18, so it’s weird to see people younger than me behind the wheel, but I get why they have to drive – walking everywhere is hard to do here,” she said. “And the pace is so quick. Sao Paolo is the fastest-paced place in Brazil, and it’s still way more laid-back than America.”
Sao Paulo, with a population of more that 11 million people in 588 square miles, is the largest city in Brazil – quite the opposite of the stereotype of South America many Americans have.
“When I first got on the volleyball team, they were wondering if I was going to be taller or darker-skinned,” Raquel said. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that we’re all from the Amazon or something. We have public transportation and huge buildings.”
Sturdivant added that hosting Raquel wasn’t just a great experience for her family, but beneficial to other high school students, too.
“It’s a great way for the students to learn about other countries as well, and kind of break down those stereotypes, so the kids have been very accepting of her,” Sturdivant said.
Raquel, while away from home, keeps in touch with her family through Skype and Facebook and said the thing she misses the most about Brazil is her friends and family. But she’s enjoying her stay in Bridgeport.
“I like all the different foods, like Whataburger and Mexican food,” she said. “And I’ve started to finally understand football. At first I was confused, but now I know most of the rules.”
And the Sturdivants enjoy hosting Raquel. Sturdivant said they don’t know if they would host a student again, but they would be open to it since this has been such a great experience.
“We just really lucked out and we got a great exchange student that we treat like one of our own. I really do consider her a part of the family now.
“Hopefully we can keep in contact for a long time.”