Meet West Hartford’s AFS Students: Maria Carvalheira from Portugal

Maria with her host family: Dancia (far left) and John Delgado and their daughter Ani (far right with braids, a junior at Northwest Catholic), and Maria (masked) leaning on Emma her AFS “sister” from Denmark. Courtesy photo

This is the first article introducing the AFS exchange students studying in West Hartford this academic year.

Interviewed and edited by Jamie Cohen, AFS volunteer (now), host sister (1980s) and returnee from Japan (1984)

Meet Maria Carvalheira from Cascais, Portugal. She is one of three foreign exchange students living in West Hartford and attending Conard High School this school year. She is also just one of seven foreign exchange students in Connecticut, out of approximately only 50 students who were able to come to the U.S. this year due to the pandemic.

In most years, there are more than 20 AFS students in Connecticut and 2,000 in the U.S.

Maria in the snow. Courtesy photo

Hi, Maria! Tell us about yourself.

I’m from Lisbon, Portugal and I’m 17 years old and a senior at Conard. There are only three students from Portugal who got to come to the United States this year, and I’m so happy that I’m one. In Portugal I have two younger brothers. I love swimming and doing sports. I like hanging out with my friends and spending time with my family. Here in the U.S., I have two sisters: one host sister who is American and another “sister” who is also an exchange student from Denmark.  We share our host family. So this year I get to learn two cultures – American and Danish! We have two dogs here, too. Like most Portuguese I’m very affectionate, so when we are all vaccinated and you see me in the center, you can come give me a hug!

Why did you want to be an AFS exchange student?

When I was 12, I went to Manchester, England for a summer camp to learn English for two weeks. There were so many people from different countries, and I loved it. Then a few years ago, my mother’s friend’s daughter came to the U.S. as an exchange student. She told us how amazing it would be for me to go on exchange and we talked about it. I decided to apply. I really wanted to meet other people and to learn a new culture. I knew that if I lived with a host family, instead of just going to a language school, I would be able to share my culture and learn about theirs, too.

What are the biggest cultural differences between Portugal and here?

Food is VERY different. My host family doesn’t eat red meat, which is really a change for me. And here there is little public transportation like in Lisbon, so we have to always ask for rides to go places. But here I get to ride a (yellow) school bus to school! Before I came here, riding a school bus was a dream – I’d only seen it in movies. And what the students wear to school is really different, too. Here I see a lot of kids in sweatpants and super comfy clothes, and in Portugal we kind dress up for school.

What have you liked about Connecticut and West Hartford?

I really like the people that I’ve met here! Of course, it’s been hard to do a lot of things and meet a lot of people because of the pandemic. But the people I’ve met are great here. I’ve made good friends, even though it’s the pandemic.

Maria (far right) with Conard cross country teammates. Courtesy photo

What do you do outside of school here?

I joined the cross country running team in the fall – I met a lot of really nice people. They all were super, super kind to me, even though I had to join late.

What would you like people reading this to know about:

Portugal: The food in Portugal is really, really good! You have to try pastéis de nata (egg custard pastries)! And Lisbon is beautiful. You should come visit me!

Hosting an AFS exchange student: I think hosting is a great opportunity to meet another culture and other customs. You have to be interested in both learning and also in sharing your own culture. If you are thinking about it, you should! It’s a good experience for the students and for the host families.

Being an AFS exchange student:  It’s like bringing your own culture to another country and community, so it’s important because your behavior can make people have their only opinion about your country.

Bauti from Argentina (left), Maria (center), and Marlena Pegolo from Maria’s AFS liaison family. Courtesy photo

About AFS:

If you are interested in hosting an exchange student next year, or if your high-school aged student would like to participate in an AFS exchange visit afsUSA.org. To learn more about AFS in West Hartford visit: https://weha-afs.org/

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