Brisa Bragança has had an upside down year in the United States. In her native Brazil, school runs from the beginning of February to the end of November. December and January are summer vacation in the Southern Hemisphere, where seasons are reversed—and winter in Sao Paolo, where Bragança lives, is hardly a New England winter. She said it’s usually about 45 degrees, but there are still some days when people can go to the beach.
Bragança, an exchange student at Valley Regional High School sponsored by Rotary clubs of Essex, Deep River and Chester, has adjusted to much more than the weather. Take the food: “very different in Brazil,” she said.
Breakfast is coffee with milk and a piece of buttered French bread; lunch and dinner are usually rice, beans, meat, and a salad, even school lunches.
“Never hot dogs or hamburgers,” she said.
Still, she added, teenagers in Brazil like fast food as much as their American counterparts.
“Brazilians love American culture. They try to be as American as possible. They like McDonald’s and Coca Cola, because they are American,” she said, adding Brazilians drink more Coca Cola than Americans do, and not necessarily the diet variety.
Bragança said that Brazilians know more about the United States, and about other countries than American high school students do. At Valley Regional, where she is a senior, people have asked her questions like whether Venezuela or Colombia make up part of Brazil, and they ask her what language people in Brazil speak. Most guess Spanish; some have asked if in Brazil people speak Brazilian. Relatively few have known that Brazilians speak Portuguese.
After a year at Valley Regional, Bragança said American public schools are much better than public schools in Brazil. She said that in Brazil most people who can afford to, go to private school. High school grades to do not count toward university admission; the only determining factor is a national examination. Many Brazilian students spend a year after high school studying for the exam, often attending cram schools to prepare for it.
In Brazil, even at private schools, student have to pay for art materials and pay to join sports clubs, which are not school sponsored. Bragança was surprised when she arrived at Valley that she could take art classes without an extra fee. She also played junior varsity volleyball. The spring musical at John Winthrop Middle School, Bye Bye Birdie, was another special experience, unlike anything Bragança had known in school in Brazil.
“Amazing, all the costumes, lights, it was huge,” she said.
Like Rotary exchange students who come to this country and Americans who go abroad, Bragança lived with three different families, each for three months, over the course of her stay in this country: Hedy Watrous, Cheryl Archer and Paul Indorf, and with Angela and Joel Nucci. Watrous, Archer, and Indorf are Rotarians. The Nuccis are not, but Angela Nucci, co-owner of Strut Your Mutt in Chester, is Brazilian.
Bragança recalled meeting the Nucci family when they invited her to share Halloween celebrations with them.
“Amazing, go house to house, all that candy,” she recalled.
Staying with three different families is part of Rotary’s objective to have a student learn about another country by experiencing life and customs in different situations.
“You know all families are different, and so you get to see more,” she said.
The long-range goal of the program, according to Bragança, is even more ambitious.
“It’s about peace, learning about other countries and cultures so we don’t have wars,” she said.
Two years ago, Rotary sponsored an exchange student from Thailand at Valley Regional. At the moment, the valedictorian of last year’s graduating class at Valley, Christina (Tina) Mitchel, is a Rotary exchange student in Japan. In January, Essex Rotarian Jeff Mehler, who is the local contact for the exchange program, received an email from Tina about her stay in Japan: “Though I’m not quite halfway finished yet, this experience has already been incredibly transformative for me, and I just can’t thank you enough for working to give me access to it,” she wrote.
As Bragança thinks about returning to Brazil, she said she will miss the landscape of New England, the architecture, the closeness to nature she felt living in small American towns, but most of all she will miss two things: “My families and my school,” she said.