by Nat Frothingham
Dial a number, or go online — in a world of almost instantaneous communications it seems as if all of us are closer together than ever before.
But the high tech that connects us doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand each other or that we can work together constructively. Because of such barriers as language, history, culture, wealth, poverty, ethnicity – just being connected, just being able to board a plane and fly to a distant place, simply means we’re together online or together physically. We still may be dangerously apart in other ways.
Rotary clubs in this country and across the world are doing something powerful in helping us to address gaps in understanding by sponsoring youth exchange programs.
Let’s say that a Montpelier High School student spends an academic year in Japan. Or let’s say that an Egyptian student spends a year in Montpelier. The impacts from these youth exchanges can be almost transformational.
Mathias Masi, 18 years old and nicknamed “Mati,” is this year’s Montpelier Rotary Club Youth Exchange student from Argentina. Specifically, Masi hails from Pilar, a city of about 300,000 people some 30 miles west of Buenos Aires.
Masi’s journey to America started off on August 20 from Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires, and the photo from the airport send-off shows a jubilantly impressive crowd of family and friends.
“Impressive?” you may ask.
During a recent visit to The Bridge offices, Masi went on to list his family as follows: “My dad, my mom, my sisters, five uncles and five aunts and nine cousins.”
Masi’s plane to the United States took off from Buenos Aires, flying west across the Andes Mountains for a stop in Santiago, Chile – then on to JFK airport in New York City, a 12-hour journey. After a four- to-five-hour layover in New York, Masi had a one-hour flight to Burlington.
At Burlington Airport, Masi was met by two Montpelier Rotarians, Eddie Rousse and Rob Lehmert. They had been told in advance to “Look for the guy who is 6 feet 3 inches tall.” When the passengers came off the plane, Masi was easy to spot.
Rousse and Lehmert went to work immediately to get Masi set up for his Vermont stay: First, they got him his own cell phone and then they got him some T-shirts and shorts.
In the whirlwind of his first few days in Vermont, Rousse and Lehmert took Masi to see a number of local attractions (in no particular order): Smuggler’s Notch, Shelburne Museum, Rock of Ages quarry, the Vermont State House, Wrightsville Dam, Montpelier’s popular creemee stand out past cemetery curve, and a visit to Thunder Road.
Masi was amazed by the crowd at Thunder Road. “Every time that people crash, people go crazy. That was very funny,” he said.
At Montpelier High School, Masi is taking a class called “Dystopian fiction.” He’s also studying the French-and-Indian War. “After that,” he said, “we will study the Civil War, then World War II. That will be more interesting to me. Argentina was neutral. That will be interesting.”
Masi likes sports. “I’m on the cross country team,” he said. “My favorite sport is basketball. But I like sports in general.”
“I like the food, but I like sports, too,” he said. Some of his favorite American foods are pizza and hot dogs. “All the food here is amazing,” he said.
When skiing was mentioned, Masi said, “I want to ski, yes. I really want to ski.”
A Rotary Exchange is very much of a two-way street. A Rotary Exchange student comes here and learns about Vermont and the United States. But inevitably, people here ask the student about his or her home country. In the process, many of us realize we know next to nothing about a place such as Argentina.
Argentina is below Brazil and Paraguay and hugs the Atlantic coast all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, the Straits of Magellan, and Cape Horn. It’s a big country, a solid one-third as large as the contiguous United States, with a population of 43 million.
Masi is well-travelled in Argentina. He’s visited Patagonia four times and has travelled as far south as Tierra del Fuego, twice by plane, twice by car.
In Argentina, students typically stay in the same classroom and teachers move from class to class. At MHS, the teachers stay in their classrooms and the students move from class to class. If you’re from Argentina, that can be confusing. Said Masi, “I knew which class I had. But I didn’t know where the room was. I asked the people and they helped me. They know I’m an exchange student.”