Nicolás Gandarias Sáez chases adventure from Madrid to Michigan


Letizia Cumbo-Nacheli

Nico cheesing as he represents his high school for the next nine months.

As adventurous as sophomore Nicolás “Nico” Gandarias Sáez is, he thinks one of the best things about being in a new country surrounded by foreign sights is the Thornapple River. 

Nico is passionate about swimming and having a body of water where he can jump in and feel the water. Nico likes to swim, and because of that, he especially enjoys having the Thornapple River near him. 

“I’m thinking of [joining the] swim team here,” Nico said. “I want to because I think I’m a good swimmer, and I like to discover new things from America–new states, new food, learn new stories, new things, and know new people.” 

As a foreign exchange student from Madrid, Spain, Nico endured an eleven-hour flight as it traversed across the Atlantic Ocean with a suitcase full of his belongings and a heaping handful of hope. After the dreadful flight, he arrived with his host family to let his adventure in a new territory begin for the next nine months. 

“I was nervous because [of] that big chance,” Nico said. “I felt like I had to say goodbye to some people; I have to do lots of things because you have to do lots of things before you go. You have to bring a suitcase and some medical things. I was worried to not say goodbye to some people, but I think I did good, and I did it in time–[I did] everything I wanted to do that week.” 

Stress and nerves got to Nico, but it was all okay in the end. The thrilling reassurance of being in a new setting where he can see new places and witness compelling experiences overthrew the expected anxiousness.

“I think it’s going to be a great adventure,” Nico said. “I’m going to discover lots of new things, but also there are some things you worry about. I already miss my home [and] my friends. I think what I will miss most are my friends. I’m worried about some things, but I was happy because it’s a big chance for me.”

I think it’s going to be a great adventure. I’m going to discover lots of new things.”

— Nicolás Gandarias Sáez

Due to his wildly adventurous personality, Nico was always intrigued by the idea of being a foreign exchange student. Because he loves traveling and seeing new locations, he obviously took the chance of applying to come to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student. 

One day, his parents told him that there was going to be an interview that will allow him to travel across the ocean and live in America for a while—Nico was ecstatic about this new opportunity. 

‘‘[The interviewers] asked me what I thought about [moving], and I said ‘Yes, I would love to do that,’’ Nico enthusiastically said. “We applied, and I [had to] present some personal data. I had to pass an English test to be here, and I also had to make a letter introducing myself and a video because the exchange company wants to find host families all across the country.”

The interviewing and tests were just the start of his newest endeavor, and from here, the journey only gets more complex.

“This year, because of COVID-19, [it] was complicated, and not so many people applied for host families,” Nico said. “I applied [for the] U.S. back in November 2020, but they didn’t know for sure [if I was going]. I didn’t [know] I was going [until the] 10th of August, and I had lost all my hope. I thought this year, I was going to be in Spain, [but] my father received a call from one guy [at] the exchange company and said there was a high school in the U.S. and some girl that was exchanging is not going. So, there’s a free place for someone to go there. I had an interview with [Principal Steve] Passinault. It was a good interview–it all seemed good. They asked me, ‘What did I know about Michigan?’ and that’s how I discovered [that] I was going to Michigan. The next day, my father received a call that said to leave for Michigan with my host family. Seven days later, I got an eleven-hour flight. I was here in Grand Rapids, suddenly.”

After his hopes were decaying for so long, Nico had finally received news that he had been waiting months to hear; he was for sure coming to the U.S. After his dreaded plane ride to the states, he became somewhat accustomed to his new home and couldn’t help but notice the drastic differences between Spain and Michigan–colder weather and different food.

“It feels weird to be in any high school because, in Spain, I know everybody in my high school, and everybody knows me,” Nico said. “Here, it’s weirder. I still have to adapt. I mean, it’s only my first month. I think I’m doing good, but I feel the difference since I’m not in the same place. There are many cultural differences between [Spain and] America, but I like it.”

Though he’s living for the time spent here, there is so much that Nico misses about Spain that can’t be perfectly replicated here, like taking the subway or enjoying the homemade Spanish cuisine.

“A thing I miss from Spain is the food,” Nico said. “I miss lots of Spanish food. I miss Tortilla de Portatas and Pachos. I miss the bread. In Spain, it’s different than here. We normally have bread bars, similar to what you would call here ‘baguettes.’ That’s what we eat mostly in Spain, it’s not like a baguette because it’s not French, but it’s really similar. And I miss that kind of bread.”

Nico has experienced other cultural shock besides the food. He’s fascinated by the way American students act during school and the early start times. 

“In class, people eat so freely,” Nico said. “We aren’t allowed to chew gum in Spain. Here, people will be eating Subway or Taco Bell in the middle of the class. Some people even sleep in class, and nobody tells them anything. That highly surprised me.”

I think [America] is a good place with good things. I really like it, and I really feel like spending nine months here.”

— Nicolás Gandarias Sáez

High school in Spain is very different than America. The start times of a school day in Spain are later, and they don’t have Homecomings,  which took place this past weekend.

“In Spain, we don’t have high school events like this,” Nico said. “I really have fun going to watch the football games. That’s really fun. I also had really fun with the Homecoming activities like the parade, the tailgate, the Homecoming dance. I really enjoyed that. It’s been a really fun weekend. I didn’t have a concrete expectation. I knew this was different, so I didn’t have an expectation. I think it’s good. It’s been a good month–lots of new experiences, good experiences.”

Nico, so far, has been having an incredible time spending his limited months here at FHC participating in school activities and watching sports–something that doesn’t happen on this level back home. His heart truly misses Spain, but that won’t stop his adventure here in Michigan, experiencing a typical teenager lifestyle. 

“I think [America] is a good place with good things,” Nico said. “I really like it, and I really feel like spending nine months here, but yes, I think it’s a good country. But if you were to ask me if I would live here instead of Spain, I would say ‘No, [I’d rather] live in Spain.’”