One exchange not enough for Graber
Fairfield native Nohema Marie Graber went off to college Monday, ready to grab life by the horns and step confidently into adulthood.
The truth is, Graber has already made more friends and seen more of the world than most people do in a lifetime. At just 19 years of age, Graber has spent a substantial part of her upbringing in faraway lands. After her sophomore year at Fairfield High School, Graber spent a year in France on a Rotary exchange program. She came back to the states to complete her senior year and graduate in the spring of 2013.
Even after graduation, Graber was still suffering from a bad case of wanderlust. She inquired to Rotarian Paul Kalainoff about the possibility of doing another Rotary exchange after high school, and it turned out she could because she was still 18, the maximum allowable age for exchange students. Graber, who grew up speaking Spanish and English in the home and who had just learned French, sought to master a fourth language. She asked to do her second exchange in Brazil, where the local language is Portuguese.
Graber’s parents had different reactions when they found out their daughter was going to spend another year out of the country. Her father Paul said it was a great idea for her to see as much of the world as she possibly could. Paul knows a thing or two about international traveling because he was an exchange student himself, spending his year abroad in Mexico. In fact, that’s where he met his wife, Nohema. Nohema took a little convincing before she accepted letting her little girl leave the country for another extended stay because she wanted Graber to attend college right away.
Studying in France and Brazil was the best decision Graber has ever made, she said. She was excited to go to France and to begin rubbing shoulders with people from a different culture who spoke a different language. Fortunately, Graber had taken two years of high school French from Sue Hansen before she left, so that gave her a foothold from which to jump head first into speaking French all day, every day. She described learning French as “hard but doable.” She said it was more difficult than learning Portuguese because Portuguese is closer to Spanish.
French culture differs from American culture in several ways, one of which being the prevailing diet of the two peoples. Graber noted the French ate less processed food than Americans, and that lunch was the most substantial meal of the day while breakfast and dinner were lighter than she was used to. Overall, she liked what and how the French ate.
In all Rotary exchange programs, the student lives with three host families for four months each. Graber’s first family in France was from Algeria and practiced Islam. She said there are many Muslim immigrants in Lyon, where she stayed.
France has passed laws in the past decade that affect how Muslims and others can dress. In 2004, the country banned school children from wearing conspicuous religious symbols that included Islamic veils and headscarves. More recently, the country prohibited wearing clothing in public that covers the face, which affects Muslim women who wear the burka. Graber said her host family complained about these laws, although she said most members of the family, with the exception of the grandparents and a few other relatives, did not wear distinctly Muslim clothing and did not attend the local mosque.
School in France was very different from her experience at FHS. Most of her classes were two hours long and focused on literature, which was her chosen area of expertise. She said that by the time students are in high school, they have begun to specialize in a certain subject and that most of their classes revolve around that subject.
Graber found the material more challenging and described the high school in Lyon as feeling like college. She said the French model of education is big on lectures and note taking and gives short shrift to group projects or student participation.
“It felt sort of like an institution,” she said.
In her free time, Graber enjoyed visiting the city center with exchange students from other countries.
“We liked going to the shops, the parks and the old part of town,” she said. “We never tired of doing that.”
After returning from Lyon and completing her senior year in Fairfield, Graber was hungry for another exchange. She asked to go to Brazil and her request was granted.
“I’ve always wanted to go to South America because I love Latin culture and Latin music,” she said. “Colombia or Peru would have been fun, but I wanted the challenge of learning a fourth language.”
As it turned out, learning Portuguese was hardly a challenge at all for Graber. She found the language was so similar to Spanish that she could understand most of what her host family said right from day one.
“I’d say it took me about a month to become fluent in the language,” she said.
Life in Brazil was everything Graber hoped it would be and more. She said the people love to meet foreigners and welcomed her with open arms. She contrasted that attitude with the French, who were hard to get to know at first.
Graber lived in Rio do Sul, a city in the rainy, southern part of Brazil that was considerably cooler than the scalding northeast. Shortly after her arrival, it snowed in Rio do Sul for the first time in 50 years.
“My family told me I brought good luck,” she said.
Graber said she really felt like she was part of the family in Brazil, more so than in France. She said that might have been because she was two years older and more mature when she went to Brazil. In Brazil, she was very close to her host sisters and did everything with them. Graber has two older biological brothers, so it was nice not only to have sisters but to have younger siblings, too.
One quirky thing Graber noticed about her first host mom was that she was a clean freak and went to great lengths to ensure her floor was spotless. She scrubbed her children’s shoes every day and even took them apart to clean them.
School in Rio do Sul was surprisingly brief and “very relaxed,” Graber said. The school day began at 7:20 a.m. and ended later that morning at 11:40, with no break for lunch. Graber attended a Catholic school that required the pupils to wear a uniform, which she liked because it prevented the students from judging each other based on their clothing.
The material was not as demanding as it was in France, and the teachers were more laid back than their French counterparts, too. However, she said the classes were still more advanced that those in Fairfield, partly because she attended a private school. All things considered, Graber liked her experience at the high school in Rio do Sul more than her time in Fairfield or in Lyon. She said she felt like she fit in there.
Graber had a biology teacher who spent more time talking politics than he did biology. She said young people in the country idolize the United States, but the older generation is more wary of Uncle Sam. People in Brazil were particularly upset when it was disclosed in the fall of 2013 that the American government had spied on Brazilians.
Southeastern Brazil has attracted a number of immigrants from European countries such as Poland, Germany and Italy. Graber said she was surprised by how fair in complexion the people were, since she expected Brazilians to be of a darker complexion.
“Brazil is a mix of cultures, and everyone there is very attractive,” she said. “The people can be superficial though, too. The girls care a lot about their hair, and everyone in the country works out. They eat well and they take care of their bodies.”
Brazil hosted the World Cup during June and July, and Graber had a front row seat to see just how seriously the Brazilians take their football. She said the streets would empty and stores would close when the Brazilian national team was playing a match. Graber went to a party where she watched Brazil battle Mexico. Despite her love for all things Brazilian, she could not cheer against her beloved Mexico, the home of her extended family.
With such an extensive background in languages, one might think Graber would major in a foreign tongue in college, but that is not the case. She is studying international relations at the University of Iowa, although she wouldn’t mind taking additional classes in Spanish, French and Portuguese. She said she routinely reads books in all three foreign languages.
Graber said students get so much more from their international exchange when they have to learn a foreign language. She made it a point to talk to the locals, which in turn made her a more outgoing person. She said she has Mark Shafer and Sallie Hayes to thank for suggesting her name to Rotary and for helping her fill out the application.