Hurricanes, Marathons, and Master’s Degrees: Exchange Student Sara Romeo Looks Back

Exchange Student Sara NYC

Sara Romeo fell in love with the United States after her first visit as a young girl.

“I was very fascinated by the country and the culture,” she said.

The food, the cars, the entertainment, the activities — everything held an allure that was magnetic. She ached for a chance to return.

“Then, I was in middle school and my English teacher told us a story about her daughter who was studying abroad for her senior year of high school,” she said. “I went home and said, ‘Mom, when I’m a senior, I’m going to be an exchange student and go study in the United States.’”

Sara followed through on that promise. In 2008, she arrived in Wisconsin — a state about which she knew next to nothing. There, she became involved in a community work group, which took the long trip to Texas to assist those affected by Hurricane Ike. They prepared food, assisted with disaster relief, cleaned up, and provided any help they could.

“It was a very interesting experience,” Sara said. “And I’m so glad we did it. This country was hosting us, and it was a very cool way to give back to the community and the people who were being so nice to us.”

But in addition to giving back, Sara was receiving something invaluable — an education in the English language the quality of which was essentially unobtainable anywhere else.

 

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“This was 2008, so there was very little way to communicate with anybody in my country. So I would speak Italian basically once a week when I would call my family. [And] I was very, very involved in many activities, where all the kids spoke English. The level of English I acquired throughout the program allowed me to get a Master’s in English, to go to an American university, to get jobs in the States.”

It wasn’t only her English-language skills that allowed her to do this, she said, but the sense of confidence she developed living abroad.

“You’re in a new country by yourself, [so you have] to be a little bit more independent. If you have a problem, you have to think on your feet and figure it out. [I also] became more open-minded and accepting of new values, new religions, new people, new ways of interacting with each other. Coming from a European background, that’s not something we’re really exposed to.”

Sara currently works in New York City, where she is the director of strategic accounts at TransPerfect, which offers global translation and multicultural marketing services. Her time spent studying abroad, she said, put her in the right frame of mind for her future professional career. By living in the United States, Sara was able to begin to understand what she would need to do to succeed in the country.

 

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The experience of travel and learning about new cultures and ideas, and using this experience to give back, has been a big part of Sara’s personal and professional life.

 

“I was very involved in sports, in community activities — that taught me to network, and to keep your connections, because you never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I knew I needed support in the United States if I ever wanted to come back. This also helped me get into the American mindset. Here, if you work hard, you succeed. If people know and see that you have what it takes to get to the next level, people will give you opportunities. In Italy it’s a much more old-world mentality. We don’t really trust young people as much, so it’s more the older crowd that runs the show. Here, it’s much more ‘go for it,’ take your chances, if you fail, get back up.”

Sara has never stopped giving back to her community. Her schedule prevents her from volunteering every day, she said, but she does try to pick a big event about once a year in which to participate and raise money for various charities. Last year, she joined Oxfam and did a 100-kilometer walk. The money raised went to help villages in Africa build schools, source clean drinking water, and meet other basic needs.

In New York, Sara has become involved with organizations focused on women’s issues and empowerment. She has been volunteering with the Lower East Side Girls Club, helping organize various events that raise money to help and support young women. She’ll also be running the NYC Marathon in the spring, accepting donations to benefit the Girls Club.

“I’m also going to start a mentorship program, so we will take the girls out to museums or to lunch on weekends,” she said.

 

Sara is running the NYC Half Marathon to Support the Lower East Side Girls Club. Photo Credit: Melissa Bender.

For an exchange student on the fence about studying abroad, Sara has nothing but encouragement.

“I honestly think it will be one of the best experiences of your life. It opened so many doors for me. It made me grow, become a more mature person, more self-aware, more culturally aware. I see so many things from a different perspective because I’ve been involved in many different environments. I really think it’s an invaluable experience that will give you so many opportunities in your personal and professional life.”

For a family unsure about hosting, Sara is equally positive. Ten years later, she remains in contact with her host family. She will attend her host sister’s wedding in October.

“Having an exchange student in your house is challenging, but it’s an experience you will keep forever,” she said. “It’s almost like traveling abroad. You learn so many things about new cultures. The students give so much back to you. It’s an enriching experience that goes both ways.”

 

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