Italian exchange student Irene Collacchioni joins FHC for her senior year


Change can be a scary thing, and real adventure can invoke fear in even the strongest individuals. It’s the exhilarating feeling of physically stepping out of your comfort zone into something new and unfamiliar that induces the thrill and adrenaline rush that some crave. Senior Irene Collacchioni recently experienced this firsthand as she stepped onto a plane by herself to begin her journey of living in a completely foreign country for almost a whole year.

Entering her final year of school in her home of Italy, Irene embarked on a foreign exchange student adventure. Through much planning, she landed in senior Sami Fox’s home at the beginning of August. For the next year, Sami and her family will be Irene’s “host,” and Irene will be a part of the Fox family, taking part in all their activities and traditions. While Irene has only been here for a few weeks, so far, it has been very different from what she expected.

“I thought people wouldn’t be as friendly,” Irene said. “It was very different because people here are friendly. My school is much smaller, and we only have 200 people there. The teachers come to you; the students don’t move around to classes, but the teachers here are more friendly. My favorite part has been the classes.”

While school has been Irene’s favorite component of her experience so far, it hasn’t come without difficulties. As English is not Irene’s first language, some classes can be difficult to learn in, especially classes such as Human Anatomy and psychology that involve challenging terminology.

“Learning can be hard because everything is in English,” Irene said. “Sometimes I get lost, like in group conversations. Talking one-on-one with someone is always okay, but large group talks can be hard. In Italy, the subjects are very different, and we can’t choose them. I studied human sciences, and we have the same people in our class for all five years.”

However, Irene’s experience has not just been about school. In her first two weeks in Michigan, before school started, Sami and her family tried to do “classic” American summer activities to show Irene what life in Michigan is really like. Some of the activities have included boating, waterskiing, having a campfire, and exploring the Lake Michigan area.

In the next eight months of Irene’s exchange, Sami and her family will continue to show her around and aid her in experiencing new things. As the fall and winter approach, she’ll encounter new weather and winter activities. Additionally, Sami is determined to expose Irene to all types of American cuisine; so far, she’s tried Tex-mex and Qdoba, but Sami has much more for Irene to try.

“We don’t have snow, so I’m kind of scared for the snow,” Irene said. “Sami is taking me skiing, and I’m a little scared. Also, the food is so different. They eat a lot of fried food here, which I was not used to. And everybody thinks that fettuccine alfredo is Italian. I’ve never had it before coming here; fettuccine alfredo is not Italian. I can’t believe it!”

The foreign exchange student experience is fun for everyone involved, including the host family. The Fox family has a special connection to the foreign exchange program, but this is the first time they’ve hosted a student themselves. For Sami, showing Irene around has been a fun way to explore for her as well. Things that Sami and other FHC students do every day without question could be a completely new experience for Irene.

“All of my siblings and I have spent time with host families abroad,” Sami said. “[My sisters] Kristy and Nina have spent over three years with host families in Ecuador and Bolivia. We’ve all had amazing experiences there, so we really wanted to be on the other side of it. I’m the only child left at home, and I hate being the only one left. So we wanted another person to make things more fun and active.”

As Irene continues to explore Michigan and all it has to offer, she is determined to experience as much as she can. A yearning to improve her English and her love for adventure are what brought her to Grand Rapids, but her positive attitude and openness to the unknown are what will make her experience incredible.

“In the end, I love to share cultures,” Irene said. “I wanted to learn about other cultures and traditions– for example, all of the traditions that my [host] family has around Christmas. I hope to integrate more. They do a lot of things differently from me, really just like the little things. I just love different cultures, and I’m really excited [for this year].”