THEY ARE HATED with a passion. They are loved unconditionally.
They are too ugly for some and accessorized to perfection by others.
They are Crocs.
And Alessandro Denti, a 17-year-old foreign exchange student from Italy, just doesn’t understand why Minnesotans would wear them.
“The way you dress is so different than the Italian way, like Crocs,” Denti said with a laugh.
This was one of many instances in which Denti, who’s from Sardinia, Italy, would grow accustomed to Minnesotan—and American—culture as a student at Coon Rapids High School this year.
Going to the U.S.
Denti was intrigued to study abroad after a friend of his in Italy studied in Wisconsin. He told his parents, his friends and his Greek and Latin teacher, who fully encouraged him to follow through with his plans.
Once he’d made up his mind, Denti signed up in October 2014 with AFS Intercultural Programs, a nonprofit organization devoted to providing students with international experiences. Denti wanted to study in an English-speaking country. But because the United States was a popular request, he thought he would most likely end up in Canada, his second preference.
“I wanted to go to the USA, but literally everyone wanted to go there,” he said. “So I was like, ‘I’m never going to do that.’”
But in July 2015, Denti was asleep when his housekeeper woke him and told him that an email had been sent to his mother with good news: he was going to America. A Coon Rapids family had chosen Denti to be their year-long guest, and he would attend Coon Rapids High School for his junior year.
“I was jumping around,” he said. “I found out and I was like ‘Oh, perfect!’”
Studying abroad at Coon Rapids
Denti is one of a small handful of international students accepted at Coon Rapids through exchange programs each year. Sue Melander, a counselor and the foreign exchange program coordinator at Coon Rapids High School, said that in her 29 years, she’s seen students come from all over, including Asia, Russia, western Europe and South America.
“We’re tending to see more variety in the locations that our students come from,” she said.
Only a number of foreign exchange programs are approved by the school, according to Melander. Students must go through a program to obtain a student visa to study up to a year at Coon Rapids, Melander said. Program administrators pair the students up with a host family and the school district.
Students and their families pay out of pocket for the students’ stay. Denti’s trip cost $50,000, he said.
Students who can afford the experience can benefit greatly from it, according to Melander.
“For the kids who come here, they realize that having English will be an advantage for them in life,” Melander said. “Some of them are looking at going to college in the U.S., so they’re checking things out here to see how they’re going to make that happen.”
Warming up to Minnesota
The school day, among other things, was new to Denti. Students in Italy end school at 1 p.m., he said, where they then eat what American high schoolers know as “lunch.”
When it came to fashion, Denti also was surprised at how Americans’ style choices differed.
“Shoes you wear at the beach, sandals, that doesn’t happen in Italy,” he said. “Or shorts. We dress up more. We always wear jeans and long pants, and never Crocs.”
But he also has adapted to the local culture. As soon as he arrived, Denti joined the Coon Rapids football team in order to meet new people. He did not know how to play or know any of the rules of the game, but Denti quickly became an Italian celebrity at school.
“Since I was the only exchange (student who played football), they gave me a lot of attention,” Denti said of the other players. “And they were all very nice to me. I was hanging out with all the seniors, so it was very cool.”
Denti also is in track this spring. He took a date to prom in April. He went skiing with his host family in Lutsen. He’s enjoyed both Minneapolis and St. Paul.
And he’s also traveled outside of the state.
“I went to South Dakota and saw Mount Rushmore and that was very cool,” he said. “I went to Washington D.C. and that was very cool, too.”
Although Denti had these “very cool” opportunities, he got homesick when the winter days hit Minnesota.
“At first everything is really exciting because everything is new, it’s your dream,” he said. “But then once you get used to that, you kind of have trouble, you feel lonely. Then you say, ‘Oh, what have I done? Why am I here?’”
So, does he regret studying abroad?
No, he says. In fact, Denti has bittersweet feelings about his return to Italy, which is scheduled for two weeks after the school year ends.
‘I don’t put limits on myself’
However, the strong bond that Denti has built with his host family over the past nine months has given way to a future reunion.
“My host family is going to come visit me this August in Italy,” he said, “and I’ll return and visit them too, so that makes me feel better.”
The months that Denti has spent in Minnesota have taught him quite a bit, he says.
“Now I’m more independent, more open-minded,” he said. “I know what my values are. I’m way more friendly and sociable than I was a year ago, and I don’t put limits on myself.”