Exchange students adjust to new social norms

Della Johnson | Staff Writer

To exchange students, the typical routine of a Mason student is foreign.

Exchange students at Mason High School often face a shift in social scenes as they transition between countries. Junior Liyan Zahran is an exchange student from Jordan, a country in the Middle East. She has stayed in Mason for seven months out of the ten she is visiting for. She said that, despite what people may think, her home country is not that different from America.

“People think that the Middle East is stricter, but it’s actually not,” Zahran said. “It depends on where you live: some places are really scary and some places are really safe. We have higher education and it’s really hard, harder than here. [I] still struggle here because of the language, but I’m completely fine with [learning].”

Sophomore Marina Bagues comes from Madrid, Spain and will stay for the entire school year, traveling back home in June. She said the transportation in the United States was unfamiliar to her at first.

“Here, if you don’t have a car, you can’t move,” Bagues said. “In Madrid, we have buses and subways. Everything is bigger, but my school is smaller than this one. I guess It’s just easier to move around.”

Zahran said she noticed that the large student population at Mason had a tendency to organize itself into close-knit groups. Trying to integrate herself into those groups was difficult, but Zahran said that just talking to people made it easier.

“Sometimes it can be hard,” Zahran said. “When I first came to this school, everyone had their own groove, their own circles I was like, ‘How am I going to fit in?’ You just have to try to adapt and talk to people. You just get out of your comfort zone and boom, you’re friends with people.”

In Bagues’ home country of Spain, she said people can act colder or more closed off. In Mason, however, she described people differently. 

“We’re sort of judgy people,” Bagues said. “And here there are some people that judge, but not a lot. It’s easier to be more confident. People are more open here, and there’s more freedom to talk.”

Junior Vincent Overkamp comes from a town outside Berlin, in Germany. He will be staying in the United States until the end of the school year. He said he has noticed some minor social differences between the two different countries, such as the way of greeting one another.

“Here, when we see each other, we’re like, ‘How are you, how’s it going,’” Overkamp said. “We don’t do that in Germany. We just say hi, and that’s it. If we ask you how’s it going, then we expect a long answer. It’s not, ‘Good.’ It’s more like good, and then I’ll explain for a long time. Here, I’m always just saying good, except for when it’s really bad.” 

In a new country with no long-time friends on top of a language barrier, exchange students like Bagues may go through a struggle to form relationships. When trying to make herself known, Bagues made sure to talk about herself to a lot of new people.

“You know a lot of people in the country you leave, and people know you for something,” Bagues said. “When you come here no one knows you, so you need to be open and tell everything about yourself. No one knows you, so if you don’t talk people will be like, ‘oh, she doesn’t talk.’ You have to be more friendly. What you do is what people are going to know you for.”

Extracurriculars and sports are common activities for students wanting to get involved and make friends. Overkamp said that joining the marching band opened himself up to more social groups and gave him people to sit with at lunch.

“I went to one practice before school even started,” Overkamp said. “Marching band is really a big family and all the people, when I got introduced to them we were already kind of friends. On the first day of school, when I sat confused at my lunch table and didn’t have anybody to sit with, people came up and were like, ‘Hey, I know you from yesterday. You’re the German.’ Then I had lunch with them. So I had people to hang out with from the beginning, thanks to marching band.” 

Extracurriculars were one way Overkamp found people he connected with. However, Overkamp said that simply being from another country assisted him with new relationships as well. 

“When you’re an exchange student, everyone is nice because you don’t have past fights or anything,” Overkamp said. “Everybody will be your friend because you’re foreign.”

Stereotypical American movies often portray a precedent of what life as a teenager should be like. Bagues said her time in Mason has lived up to those expectations.

“Before coming here, I thought it was going to be like the movies,” Bagues said. “It actually is, with all the football games and things like that. It’s going to be really weird when I go back, and when everything has to change.”

Graphic by Aadrija Biswas.