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Student prepares for year in Italy

Buon viaggio

OBSERVER Photo by Mary Heyl Kamaron Hillman is looking forward to spending her senior year studying in Italy through international exchange program ASSE.

While many students look forward to prom, class trips and other farewell festivities of their senior year, Dunkirk resident Kamaron Hillman is preparing to spend it as an exchange student in Italy.

This September, Kamaron is boarding a plane for Rome, Italy, and then traveling to her host family, who live in Novara. Just 30 miles west of Milan, Novara is in northern Italy and will be home for Kamaron until next June. “My host family is a mom and a dad, and their little boy who is 5,” said Kamaron. “We’ve used WhatsApp to contact each other already. We can text, call and do video chat at no cost, which I’ll use to stay in touch with my family once I’m there.”

For the past year, Kamaron has been preparing for this experience, which began with a careful comparison of exchange programs. “Kamaron did all the research,” Kamaron’s mother, Susan Hillman, explained. “ASSE International Student Exchange Programs had the best opportunities and were half the price of other exchange programs. They also had better scholarship opportunities.”

ASSE was established in 1976 as the American Scandinavian Student Exchange by the Swedish government to organize student exchange programs between Sweden and the U.S. Soon, Denmark, Norway and Finland elected to participate, and since then, the program has grown to include 30 countries on six continents.

Kamaron applied for one of ASSE’s scholarships at the end of 2018. “We sent in our financial information and then I had to write an essay about why I wanted to be in the exchange program,” Kamaron explained. “Anyone can apply for a scholarship. I also included the book of poetry that I published in December, along with all of my extracurriculars. I had to interview with the regional coordinator in Buffalo, and she sent in a reference letter on my behalf.”

In December 2018, Kamaron Hillman self-published a book of original poetry, which is available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.com.

In February, Kamaron was notified by ASSE that she was the winner of the prestigious Walter Danielson Scholarship, which is awarded to just one student in North America each year. Kamaron is the first student in the eastern region to ever receive the award. The scholarship, in honor of Danielson’s work in establishing ASSE International, covers 100% of the program fee, round-trip airfare, comprehensive insurance and monthly pocket money. “Part of the scholarship also includes a free trip within the host country,” Kamaron explained. “My host family has family on the island of Sardinia, and they also have a holiday house down in the south. I’m going to let them decide where to go, but it’s a great perk for them, too!”

Through ASSE, Kamaron was able to choose where she wanted to study; however, her choice wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. “I knew I wanted to study in Italy, and then I found out that I was awarded the scholarship,” she explained. “But at that point, I had to wait to find out if there was a host family that would accept me in Italy.”

Finding host families

Fortunately for Kamaron, a family accepted her right away. However, there are dozens of international students hoping to study in the U.S. who are still waiting to be accepted by a host family. Kamaron has made it her mission to share this with others so that these students can be enriched by a year abroad, too. “All these high schoolers (in other countries) are looking for host families,” Kamaron explained. “They’ve already done everything I’ve done; they’ve applied, been accepted, they’ve interviewed and completed all of the paperwork. They’ve written their essays and their letters, but there’s no one in the U.S. that will accept them.”

Kamaron pointed to ASSE’s enthusiasm about their students’ interests and accomplishments. She has followed ASSE on Instagram, where she’s had the opportunity to learn about the students in other countries who are planning to study abroad. ASSE shares students’ interests, languages, parents’ occupations, and letters to prospective host families. “It’s amazing what some of these students are involved in,” said Kamaron. “Skiing, violin, ballroom dancing, cooking, soccer, playing strategy games, which could be really fun for an American host family who has younger kids.”

Kamaron added that it doesn’t cost the host families anything to have an ASSE student, but that often, host families receive a special surprise package from ASSE to thank them for their participation. “It’s a really good experience for the host family,” Kamaron explained. “First of all, they have someone speaking a different language and bringing that different culture. It’s kind of like getting a taste of a different world without actually having to go there. If you have children, you give them a friend, and so your younger children have a world experience at a young age, as well. They’ll have someone to talk to — across the world — as they get older. They can keep in contact and maybe even visit them later on.”

Hillman added, “One thing I’ve shown my children is that the world is very interesting, but western New York is actually a very nice place to spend a year at school. We can go to Toronto, Buffalo, we’ve got Kodak in Rochester nearby, the Finger Lakes. We’ve got mountains, skiing, and the Great Lakes. We’re a short drive from Pennsylvania and Ohio, too.”

Preparing for school in Italy

Kamaron, who has been home-schooled by Hillman for most of her life, will be attending public school in Novara. However, it will be quite a different experience from an American high school. “They don’t serve meals in school,” Kamaron explained. “There’s no free breakfast or lunch. You bring a snack, because you get there at 8 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m. You have a big lunch at home.” She added that there is also school on Saturdays during the same hours.

Kamaron explained that the school does not provide transportation; rather, students walk (most live within walking distance) or are driven by their parents. “There’s no hallway time in between classes,” Kamaron added. “You stay in the same room and the teachers rotate.”

Students also have more choices when it comes to their curriculum. Rather than selecting electives, students at Kamaron’s Italian school choose from three “schools” of curriculum, which determine their classes. There is a classical school, a math/science school and an arts school, which Kamaron is eyeing. “Of course it includes classes in the arts, in general, but also history and language,” said Kamaron. “If they give me a choice, that’s what I’ll choose!”

Indeed, Kamaron’s passion for art is one of the reasons why she chose Italy for her year abroad. “Half my family is Italian,” she explained. “Also, I love art; I love that Italy has so much history and unique architecture. Italy is a wealth of history, food, art and music. I play the violin, so I’m hoping to be in some kind of ensemble when I’m over there.”

Among Kamaron’s wide range of extra-curricular activities, which include Civil Air Patrol, archery and ice skating with Gliding Stars, soccer stands out as an activity she will most likely enjoy during her year abroad. “I like soccer, but compared to Italian soccer players, I’m not sure how my level of playing compares,” Kamaron laughed. “If there is a soccer team over there for me, I will join if I can.”

Advice for others

Kamaron acknowledged that there are several reasons why American students may hesitate to spend a year abroad; however, she believes students should not let these concerns stop them. “You don’t have to speak the language before you go to the country you want to study in,” she explained.

Kamaron has been using Rosetta Stone to learn Italian for the past two months; however, she knows immersion in the country will go a long way in teaching her to speak and read Italian once she’s there. “If you have enough perseverance to go to another country and be in another school, you can get help with your school work, and your host family can help translate,” Kamaron explained. “With technology today, it’s even easier! I think the only thing that would be a big change is the metric system. But if they’re getting ‘A’s over here, they should be able to get ‘A’s over there.”

Kamaron pointed out that studying in another country for a year does not necessarily interfere with graduating on time. She explained that students in public high schools can work with their counselors and ASSE in advance to discuss transferring credits from their year abroad to their home high school transcript.

Looking ahead

Kamaron is excited to share her experience in Italy with the community upon her return. Already experienced in self-publishing with Amazon, she hopes to write a book about her journey to Italy and her experience as an exchange student. “There’s something about being an exchange student,” she reflected. “You get to live the life — not as a tourist — but as an Italian, really. I’m very excited!”

After graduation, Kamaron is looking forward to studying international relations in college. She has already earned more than 20 college credits through classes at JCC through the PEP Grant and Bryant & Stratton College’s Jumpstart program. She hopes to continue her studies at one of the following schools: American University, Carnegie Mellon University, The College of William and Mary, Cornell University or Messiah College. Kamaron would like to become an ambassador or a foreign officer to combine her love of travel and learning about other countries with her passion for working with other people. “In other nations, studying abroad is almost a given: ‘Where are you studying abroad next year?’ In America, it’s this very unique thing that most people don’t do, which I think we should do a lot more of to expand our views and horizons.”

Beginning this fall, readers can follow Kamaron’s journey in the OBSERVER, where she plans to contribute a regular column about her experiences. To learn more about ASSE or host an international student, call 1-800-677-2773 or visit www.host.asse.com.

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