SUNRISE SUMMIT — Every year, HHS offers students the opportunity to travel abroad with the Italian Exchange Program, and every year, students return to Hampshire County with their own unique abroad experiences.
Rita Hott, HHS German teacher, said that the program started in the 90s as a summer program, and at Easter-time in 1999, HHS students made the inaugural trip.
“Now, I have kids of those kids from the first trip, or their relatives that are now going,” explained Hott. “I organize it myself. There’s no middleman. It helps keep the cost low for the kids.”
In 2011, the program was moved from the spring to November over Thanksgiving break, and after leaving the country on Nov. 13, this year’s group of 14 kids began their journey abroad to Italy and Austria.
Senior Lastin Whitacre said that he liked the camaraderie that grew between the HHS students and their Italian host students.
“I liked being with the host family. We weren’t really friends when we started, but now a lot of us talk to the Italian [students] every day,” Whitacre said. “I felt like it was a bonding experience.”
There was a noticeable change in atmosphere when they went abroad, especially regarding the people that they met on the way, according to senior Gavin Abello.
“They were abnormally kind and generous over there, and they all cared for each other,” Abello said. “I’ve been to places like Disney World and Virginia Beach that are supposed to be lots of fun, but some of my best memories are over there.”
Junior Drake Keckley said that his time abroad did more than allow him to experience a different culture.
“I learned that I don’t always need other people’s help,” he said. “I can be an individual.”
Across the board, many of the students who ventured across the Atlantic this year were impressed by the food. Dishes such as pumpkin ravioli, gelato, pizza, pesto and focaccia (flat Italian bread similar to a pizza crust. “It’s a food group!” said Hott with a laugh) gave students an impressive taste of another culture.
This year, the group traveled to Italy and Austria and stopped at a variety of significant sites, including Genova, the location of the exchange school itself, Bolzano to see the Ice Man, Salzburg, Vienna and the Mauthausen concentration camp, among many other sites. The variety of locations on the itinerary allowed students to learn about different facets of the culture, including architecture, which sophomore Alexander Smith said was one of his favorite elements of the trip.
“We really try to challenge them,” Hott said. “They’re all good kids.”
There is an extensive application process for students who are interested in going on this annual trip, including introductory essays, GPA requirements and letters of recommendation, and Hott said that the applications are open to all students, not just her German classes. Each year in November, HHS students travel with Hott and chaperones to Italy for the program, and every spring the students host their Italian program partners, students who they have been paired with for the exchange.
According to Hott, one of the goals of the program was to have the HHS students experience life abroad from multiple angles, and not just have a tourist experience.
“I want them to be travelers, not tourists,” Hott said. “I want them to be more than just a tourist seeing all of the sites. I want them to see what happens behind the scenes, in the homes, and be travelers.”