By Carol Stiffler
Claudio Bistolfi, 17, swapped the bustling streets of Milan, Italy, for the quiet town of Newberry last August. He’s about to graduate from Newberry High School – basically a formality, since he will continue school in Italy this fall, tackling his fifth and final year.
Bistolfi was a sensation on the basketball court, helping the 2022 Newberry Indians achieve basketball goals that seemed out of reach. The Indians defeated the Sault High Blue Devils here for winter homecoming.
That may be how he is best known now, but Bistolfi is essentially a student ambassador for Italy, bringing historic Europe right into the halls of NHS. He’s an only child, the son of Italy’s Paolo and Flora Bistolfi, and he hasn’t been home since August 2021.
Tall and trim, with dark amber eyes, Bistolfi was an instant standout at school. Fellow foreign exchange student Alvaro Colilla Martinez, of Spain, also landed in Newberry this year, and the pair quickly began navigating the American high school experience while brushing up on their English. They also became very close friends.
“Sometimes I get asked about it, questions about my background, my country, my city or whatever,” Bistolfi said. “In particular, people ask me how big it is. It’s way bigger than here.”
Bistolfi knew what he was getting into before he came here. He spoke with his host family – he is staying with Ryan and Elizabeth Magnuson – before committing. He also talked to Andrea LaBionda, an exchange student from Greece who spent the 2020-2021 school year here, about his experience. While nothing could have prepared him for the very smallness of Newberry, he knew enough to know he wanted to come.
“Coming to USA as an exchange student and play basketball has been his dream since he was a kid and knew about this opportunity,” said Paolo Bistolfi. “We’re glad he’s living something very different from his “comfort zone”: a small city with different weather and wildlife. It’s a good opportunity to see a different lifestyle with all the pros and cons.”
Among those differences are the school experience itself.
“Here I’m definitely studying less,” Bistolfi said. “All the focus before was on studying. Now it’s more like sports. I do so much sports after school that there’s not really time to study. It’s a different system, but I like it. I came here also for that–to experience the American sports.”
Bistolfi is also experiencing life with siblings for the first time. In the Magnuson home, there’s an 11-year-old boy, Quentin, and 1-year-old girl to spend time with.
“They hit it off really well,” said Ryan Magnuson, who said Bistolfi felt like family just about a day after he arrived here. “Quentin is going to be very sad to see him leave.” Bistolfi has been a role model, Magnuson said, even though he had to abide by regular household rules.
The Magnuson family took Bistolfi to an NBA basketball game and to Orlando to broaden his otherwise very snowy experience.
And then there’s playing basketball with student fans in the stands.
“That’s something we don’t have in Italy, because we don’t have school sports,” Bistolfi said. “You play in clubs, a league separated from the school. There’s not a lot of hype.”
This sort of learning – between the American students and their international guests – is part of the intention behind International Cultural Exchange Services (ICES), the organization that helps place exchange students with American families.
Shalan Cornell is a local coordinator for ICES, living right here in Newberry, and usually hosts one or two students per year with her husband, Eric. The Cornell family has recently grown with the addition of five-month-old Callie, but they hosted Alvaro Colilla Martinez anyway.
“Small towns really welcome the students very warmly,” Cornell said. “In the cities, the students get more swept under because there’s so many kids. Here, you’re an exchange student, it’s like an instant popularity thing because they’re so different.”
Magnuson said the foreign exchange students are friendly, and local students gravitate toward them. Bistolfi has established friendships even with kids in other U.P. towns.
While there are many host families in Michigan, and currently about 50 foreign exchange students in the U.P., Cornell said finding local host families has been a challenge.
After a background test and a check to make sure the local home can suitably host a student, pretty much anything goes.
“We have empty nesters, old, young, single parents, single moms, single dads,” Cornell said. “We have kids with families who have babies, or no children, or several children. We have same-sex couples. Anything is open and on the table. The kids really just jump at the opportunity to come.
Not every exchange student who wishes to study in the U.S. will be placed, Cornell said, and there are still about 900 students waiting for placement within ICES for next year.
The process almost sounds like adopting – host families can read profiles of their prospective guests and pick one whose interests match their own. Cornell intentionally hosts athletic boys because they’re inclined to stay busy with sports and get entrenched with friends and local culture.
That worked for Alvaro, who got on a plane for the first time to come to Newberry last fall. He lives in Madrid, a capital city, and is accustomed to public transportation, a lower drinking age, and many fewer guns.
“In the first days, I was like ‘What am I doing here?’ But then football started, and I got to know people, and that’s when I started liking it,” he said. “After the first couple days, it all went straight up. It was really good.”
Michal Vigas, who stayed with the Cornells during the 2019-2020 school year, said that’s the best way to tackle being a foreign exchange student.
“Get to know people and do things as soon as you can,” Vigas said. He became so immersed in his life with the Cornells that he now attends Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids and returns to stay with the Cornells regularly.
Exchange students can’t go home during their visit, even for holidays. They are encouraged to immerse themselves in their new local culture rather than spending time chatting with friends or family from their home countries.
It isn’t a true exchange. There’s not a NHS student in Claudio or Alvaro’s place in Milan or Madrid. But the international guests bring their country to our students without even meaning to, and Cornell finds she now has “sons” she loves – former exchange students – all over the world.
“They don’t mind coming to small towns like Newberry and Engadine,” Cornell said. “They can play any sport they want to play. The community is so welcoming. They actually really enjoy it. They might be nervous before they get here, but every one of my boys does not want to leave. They all want to stay.”
Cornell said the exchange students are grateful for their school, friends, teachers, coaches, and parents of friends for accepting them, helping with rides, and spending extra time with them.