Hilltowns school for three from overseas

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Nicolás Padrós Creus, a Berne-Knox-Westerlo ninth-grader from Barcelona, Spain, said his family rings in the new year with grapes in their mouths. For each of the 12 seconds before midnight, they eat a grape, and the celebrations continue in public squares throughout the city on New Year’s Day.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Isadora Mazon de Mello, from Brazil, said she plans to visit Times Square with her host family for the New Year’s celebration. She described New Year’s Eve in Brazil, where celebrants wear white, watch fireworks, and throw rose petals into the lapping waves of the ocean.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Camila Cometa García, saw snow for the first time this year in New York. In her home country, Columbia, families and groups gather to recite a prayer, called Las Novenas, celebrating the coming of Jesus from Dec. 16 to 24.


BERNE — A select three among the students at Berne-Knox-Westerlo are teachers themselves. The inaugural trio of the school’s international student visa program are now halfway through their year-long stay.

Secondary School Principal Brian Corey is one of their hosts, making a temporary home for Nicolás Padrós Creus from Barcelona, Spain.

“We’re not a very culturally diverse school to begin with,” said Corey, noting how the new students, from Brazil, Spain, and Colombia, can expose BKW students to different cultures and societies, and kindle curiosity in foreign languages.

The students this week spoke, too, of their teenage experiences to which most of high-school age could relate.

“I’m changing here,” said Isadora Mazon de Mello of Brazil, a junior. “I’m giving much more value for my family in Brazil. I really miss them.”

Corey traveled to China on a tour of seven large cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, where he represented BKW — the only school from New York — to students there. He said several families had interest for the following year. A distance learning class for Mandarin Chinese was started this year for BKW students. Corey reported at the mid-December school board meeting that three students from the district are currently enrolled in the class, with 93 as the lowest average.

The 2013-14 school year is a test run of what is formally known as the Student and Exchange Visitor Program for which BKW received certification from the United States Department of Homeland Security. Students study at the school with F-1 visas, for non-immigrant students, requiring a full course of study.

Another benefit to the program, which administrators saw at work in a school district in the Adirondacks with dropping enrollment, is the revenue. Families of the students pay tuition to BKW, in addition to paying the host family. This year, the three students are staying for a full year.

BKW has seen its number of students gradually decrease, from 1,080 in 2006 to 886 in 2013 for on-campus pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, as well as Vo-Tech students.

Camila Cometa García

Though her main reason for coming to the United States from Colombia is to improve her English, Camila Cometa García’s transition at BKW into her favorite class had a low bar.

“I love mathematics,” said the tall 17-year-old.

In her private, Catholic high school, Cometa García learned in the same classroom all day and teachers rotated through. She said she had religion, philosophy, and ethics classes; only through her trip to BKW is she getting a chance to study forensics.

“I don’t need the grades,” Cometa García said of her classes here. She is in 11th grade, having already graduated from high school back home in November.

Cometa García plans on studying industrial engineering at Bogotá University, in the capital of Colombia. There, among the Northern Andes mountains, the air is cold all year, she said.

Colombia, at the top of South America, is divided at its southern tip by the equator, and Cometa García’s home city, Neiva, lies in a valley where the weather is “only hot,” she says.

This winter, Cometa García saw snow for the first time.

“It was terrible,” said Cometa García. “I was in the car. It was so blurred in the road.” Only red dots of brake lights were visible in the white scene, she explained.

Not all travel experiences have been so harrowing. Cometa García said she loves horses and was taken to see them by her host family.

Cometa García is studying French here, another class she took in Neiva, but English, she said, is the most important language for people at home to study.

“In your work, you are going to use it a lot,” she said, explaining that, as an industrial engineer, she may be working with people from other countries and that businesses in Colombia are often created around imported goods.

On New Year’s Eve, Colombians wear colorful underwear for good fortune and carry full bags or suitcases with aspirations of travel.

“It’s crazy,” said Cometa García. “The people have a lot of things.”

On Dec. 7, Colombians celebrate El Día de Las Velitas, or Day of Little Candles.

“[There are] little candles in all the city, and kids go outside and make wishes,” said Cometa García. The Catholic tradition and national holiday is a celebration on the eve of the Immaculate Conception, as told in the Bible.

From the Dec. 16 to 24, Colombians gather in public places and in their homes for group prayer, known as Las Novenas, and carols around Nativity scenes.

Isadora Mazon de Mello

Berne is very different from Sorocaba, Brazil, in the country’s most industrious state and 80 miles from the capital and most populous city, São Paolo. 

“The peace,” Mazon de Mello noted of her new surroundings. She is 16 and in 11th grade.

“You have time to think about your life and your purpose in life,” she said of living in the Helderbergs. Mazon de Mello wants to be an actress. She has taken Irish dance lessons at home in Sorocaba, but here she has tried and embraced hip-hop dance at a studio in Schenectady.

“My thing is that I love art,” said Mazon de Mello.

She says, with each character she interprets, “you take a little bit for yourself.”

“To be another character, with other manners, and other things, that makes you know more about how to deal with people,” said Mazon de Mello.

In high school, in a new country, Mazon de Mello finds she is sometimes seen differently. Her joking lines, she said, are not always understood as she means them — with sarcasm. In Brazil, Mazon de Mello said, she feels more liberty in how she speaks to friends and family.

“I’m being respectful with everybody, and some people are not, so I have to be very patient,” said Mazon de Mello. “I’m not very patient in Brazil, but here I have to be.”

Many of the same traditions, with Christmas trees, gifts, and Santa Claus, are celebrated in Brazil, a deeply Catholic country. Mazon de Mello said her family eats several different meats, including turkey, chicken, and steak, for the holidays. Her parents each have five siblings, giving Mazon de Mello many cousins to see on Christmas. The men in the family alternate each year dressing up as Santa Claus.

For New Year’s Eve, Mazon de Mello explained, Brazilians dress in white, gathering on beaches to sing songs and dance. The countdown begins — 10, 9, 8… — and rose petals are thrown into the sea as the new year comes.

“The white is to give you peace for the year,” said Mazon de Mello.

Nicolás Padrós Creus

The Clínica Padrós was started three generations ago, a dentistry office operated by the great-grandfather of Nicolás Padrós Creus. Padrós Creus plans on taking on the family mantle after finishing his dental studies at an American university. His father came to the United States to attend Columbia University, he said, but his father’s father, now an orthodontist, called him back to Spain.

“You are more self confident. You become more major,” Padrós Creus said of living away from home. “You must calculate how much you can spend each month.”

Padrós Creus’s father suggested his son come and study in America. The 14-year-old is now in ninth grade and reached BKW eminence with goal saving on the soccer team this fall. He plays on a qualified regional team in Barcelona, where the soccer season extends through the year. Now, he’s trying wrestling for BKW, and tae kwan do in Altamont with his host family.

“He’s become part of the family,” said Corey. Padrós Creus wants to buy gifts for people with his own money, Corey said.

“We say, ‘No Nico, we want you to be a part of what we’re doing,’” said Corey. “He’s just a generous kid.”

The Padrós Creus family recently visited Nicolás, traveling to see New York City, as the other two students from overseas plan to do over the holiday break.

“Very countryside,” Padrós Creus said of the Hilltowns. “You cannot go walking everywhere. In Barcelona, I can get on the subway and go everywhere I want.”

 Corey said he has taught Padrós Creus slang and English.

“He’s definitely starting to understand the difference in sarcasm,” said Corey.

Padrós Creus’s high school at home is mostly private, where teachers, instead of students, switch between classrooms. The curriculum is similarly rigorous at BKW, Padrós Creus said, but multiple-choice tests here are easier than the writing-based ones in Spain.

“You would find two tests in the whole year when you have to write ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ ‘D,’” said Padrós Creus.

In the BKW hallways, Padrós Creus said, he has heard, “Nico,” called out by people he doesn’t know.

“I noticed, it’s like everyone knows everyone,” said Padrós Creus.

Spain is predominantly a Catholic country, with Christmas focused on Jesus.

“Less people are following the religion,” said Padrós Creus.

Though Spaniards have Santa Claus and celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, the Epiphany, on Jan. 6, is the focal point of the season for children who receive their presents from the three kings (Los Reyes Magos). The day is known as Dia de Los Reyes, or Day of the Kings.

A New Year’s tradition, Padrós Creus described, is the family watching celebrations on television and counting down the last 12 seconds, eating a grape for each second.

“When it’s New Year, we have mouths with plenty of grapes,” said Padrós Creus.

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