By Carol Stiffler

It’s a great big world out there.

In the rural spread of Luce and West Mackinac counties, it can be hard to remember that. But in Newberry and Engadine high schools, it’s a little easier this year: There are currently five exchange students from around the world visiting our districts. Two are in Newberry and three are in Engadine.

All of them are here through the International Cultural Exchange Services organization, and with a primary goal of perfecting their English skills. Some are also interested in the sports scene, which is not usually part of the school experience in their home countries.

Diego Caballero, 16, from Spain, and Alexandre Aguiar, 18, from Brazil, are guests in two Newberry homes and attending Newberry High School. Caballero played varsity football last fall and has been recently making a name for himself on the basketball court, scoring multiple baskets for the Indians varsity basketball team when they played Engadine Monday night.

An only child, Caballero is staying at the home of Amy Pavey, where he has siblings for the first time. He’ll be here until June and is pretty sure he’ll be back to visit in the future.

Aguiar is staying in the Carly Dubay household, though he admits he had originally requested to be hosted in a Houston, Texas home. When that didn’t pan out, he happily accepted a home in the U.P.–even if he’s not very happy about the snow.

“I don’t mind it,” he said. “It’s just … so cold.”

Easing the sting, his host family took him to Houston for his 18th birthday last week. Aguiar, who has two siblings and two step-siblings at home, can choose to continue school when he returns or formally graduate from NHS in June.

Though Aguiar says it has been easy to make friends in Newberry, he’s quickly formed a strong friendship with Caballero. Aguiar is one of the taller players on the Indians varsity basketball team, which had a stumbling start to the season but seems to be finding a rhythm.

“I’m not the same as I was in Brazil,” Aguiar said, mostly because school is much harder for him there. “I really have to try. When I am here, I don’t really need to study.”

Caballero agrees that classes are much easier here, but the immersive English language experience is still paying dividends.

In Engadine, the girls’ varsity basketball team is also reaping rewards with the January 14 arrival of Elisa Carfora, 17, of Italy. Carfora has played year-round basketball in her home country, though there’s no basketball program offered by her school.

Fittingly, she’s staying in the home of Roger and Sharon French. Roger is the girls’ varsity basketball coach, and his daughter, Leah, is a star player on the team.

Carfora said she had a few days of culture shock upon arrival, though she is enjoying her stay.

“The first few days were quite scary,” she said. Technically, her classes are easier than her Italian curriculum, but the language barrier makes them all feel harder.

Engadine Superintendent Andrew Alvesteffer, and his beloved dog Branwyn, are hosting Pedro Okuba, 15, from Brazil, and Makar Domuschi, 17, from Russia.

Okuba is considered fluent in English in his home country, but is hoping to lighten his accent during his 12-month stay. He signed up for the exchange program on his parents’ recommendation, and is here for a calendar year, which matches the January-to-December Brazilian school year.

He plans to be a plastic surgeon someday, potentially working in the U.S. At home, you can find him skateboarding, surfing, and playing soccer. Here, he’ll translate skateboarding into snowboarding and plans to try baseball in the spring.

Okuba is comfortable here.

“People here are really friendly,” he said. “Most people come say hi to me and ask me how I am doing.”

New housemate Makar Domuschi, 17, of Russia, is also staying with Alvesteffer. His trip to the U.S. wasn’t as simple as fellow exchange students due to the embargo placed on flights from Russia. Domuschi traveled by car to Latvia, then got on a plane and began hopping through countries and across the continent.

He doesn’t want to focus on the politics between Russia, Ukraine, and the world. He’s here for the positive experience offered.

“I want to improve my English and I want to learn how to write,” he said. “I need to learn how to write in English.”

The middle child of three brothers, Domuschi will be in Engadine for a single semester.

Domuschi loves math and is already studying to be a computer programmer. He’s enjoying the pizza and baked goods he finds here and has already watched Avatar 2 at the Tahqua-Land Theatre.

Local ICES Coordinator Shalan Cornell, who is also a regional administrator for the program, said there are only a handful of Russian students in the exchange program this year – perhaps five – and knows we’re lucky to have Domuschi here.

Cornell hopes to grow the exchange program in the area and, hiring more coordinators in the eastern U.P. and, hopefully, placing more students for us to meet in future school years.