By Starrla Cray
COKATO, MN Seventeen-year-old Amanda Braga was an only child in Italy, but all that changed when she became an exchange student.
She’s spending the school year with Carl and Janet Aho and their nine children in Cokato. Johnny is the youngest (in preschool), followed by Jane, Bryce, Zach, Laina, Hailey, Karmen, Marianna, and Brittany (a senior).
“Everyone is so cute and so nice,” Amanda said. “One of my biggest fears coming here was to feel alone. But with this family, that’s impossible.”
The Ahos greeted Amanda at the airport in August, displaying posters that read “Our new sister,” “Welcome to Minnesota,” and “Welcome Amanda.”
“She got here during the Cokato Corn Carnival, and she had corn on the cob for the first time,” Janet said.
Other “firsts” for Amanda have included eating peanut butter (she had never heard of the peanut-butter-and-jelly combination), carving a pumpkin on Halloween, and performing in Dassel-Cokato High School’s fall musical, “Cinderella.”
“I really like musicals,” Amanda said, explaining that she had been in plays in Italy, but hadn’t sang and danced.
Besides acting, one of Amanda’s passions is horseback riding. In Italy, she owned a horse, which she kept boarded since her family lives in an apartment. This year, Amanda is taking English riding and jumping lessons in Maple Lake.
Amanda also loves photography, writing, reading, and traveling. After high school and college, she’s thinking about pursuing a career in either journalism or veterinary medicine.
Studying abroad has been a dream of Amanda’s for the past four years.
“I chose the United States because I was so fascinated with the culture,” she said.
She had heard that American food is “really bad,” but hasn’t found that stereotype to be true. The only three foods she misses are Italian pasta, pizza, and ice cream.
Amanda was surprised to see how accurately American movies portray high school life. Sports, for example, are a much bigger deal here than in Italy. She had played club volleyball back home, but said it was much less competitive than here.
The school day is also structured differently in Italy. Students attend six days per week, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Italians also get to choose the type of school they go to, but they don’t have elective classes like in America. Amanda had been at a “classical” school, which focuses on literature, philosophy, and history. Amanda began learning English in first grade, but said she’s gained the most knowledge the past five years.
With her fluent language skills and warm smile, Amanda is quickly becoming part of the Aho family. So far, they’ve taken her to Defeat of Jessie James Days in Northfield, a rodeo with barrel racing, and to a college visit at Northern Michigan University. (Brittany is planning to attend school there next year, seeking a career as a children’s cancer nurse.)
Amanda is the first foreign exchange student the Ahos have hosted. Janet said the family was nervous for Amanda to arrive, because they wanted her to have a good experience. Fortunately, they needn’t have worried.
“I enjoy it so much,” Amanda said. “If it weren’t for missing my family and friends, it would be perfect.”