Jacopo Spezia comes from Arco, an alpine village in Northern Italy. Manuchehr Dorgabekov comes from Khorog, a Middle Eastern town located in the foothills of the Himalayas in Tajikistan.
What do the two have in common? They’re both spending a year in Granville as foreign exchange students.
The 17-year-old boys live with Tom Scott and are actively involved in life at Granville Central School.
Spezia played on the football team, and Dorgabekov played soccer and wrestled for the Horde. Both said they are having a great experience in the United States.
“Looking at the movies, I wanted to experience it all myself. This was a really great experience,” Dorgabekov said, and Spezia agreed.
“I like it here; it’s really different. Everybody’s more open, and you can talk with everyone,” Spezia said.
Both also found the atmosphere at school to be different than at home, especially in how students and teachers relate to each other.
“The teachers are more friendly. At home we have to treat the teachers respectively and more like a boss, and here it’s different,” Spezia said.
Dorgabekov also found his teachers to be more approachable than those in his country.
“Here you can joke with a teacher, and it’s a really good relationship,” he said. Spezia and Dorgabekov also come from schools where they’re in the same classroom all day. And Dorgabekov said students back home don’t eat for the whole school day.
Dorgabekov says he has met a lot of friendly people and his experience has surpassed his expectations. What both boys noticed is while Granville students all know and are friendly with each other, they don’t have as many close relationships.
They said this is different from experiences in their native country where they are as tight with their friends as they would be with family.
The two boys have a visibly comfortable rapport with Scott; they look to him for a word they don’t understand and they all appear to make each other laugh.
“He’s really cool because he’s a really good guy, because he’s a friend, a father, and a boss at the same time,” Spezia said.
“Tom gives us really good support; he’s a really good person with a rich personality,” Dorgabekov said, joking that he might say otherwise if Scott wasn’t around.
Scott previously hosted a German exchange student several years ago and enjoyed the experience so much he decided to try it again. With all four of his daughters out of the house, he said it is nice to have the boys around.
He thinks the students’ presence in Granville is valuable for everyone.
“We benefit from it and they benefit from it,” Scott said. And through Dorgabekov, he believes locals will see that people from the Middle East are just like them.
“We’re just used to that area through conflict and I wanted people to see they’re like everyone else,” Scott said.
He’s grateful that Granville has embraced these boys.
“If it wasn’t for the school system and the community accepting them and allowing them to come into here, it wouldn’t work,” Scott said.
Dorgabekov is in the Future Leaders Secondary School Exchange Program (FLEX), which provides scholarships for high school students ages 15 to 17 from Eurasia to spend an academic year in the United States, living with a family and attending an American high school,” according to the U.S. Department of State’s website.
Communications were suddenly cut to Dorgabekov a few weeks before he came, due to fighting between his province’s government and opposition warlords. He said crossfire bullets flew through his family’s apartment and everyone stayed inside for days so they wouldn’t get shot.
Though his government didn’t report it, Dorgabekov said numerous civilians were killed along with officials and rebels. However, he does not feel nervous about returning home.
“It’s safe now,” he said.
The boys said they miss their family and friends, but they’re able to regularly communicate with them through phone and Internet. Leaving will be bittersweet.
“Half of my body wants to stay here, and half of my body really wants to go home,” Spezia said.
Scott has already brought the students to several other areas including Niagara Falls, and plans on taking them to Boston and New York City before they depart at the beginning of the summer.
As far as American food, Spezia said it is different but good.
“I love Applebees, and I love when Tom cooks. I miss fresh mozzarella a lot,” Spezia said.
When Dorgabekov was asked about the local fare, with a mischievous smile and a wink he said he loves Scotties,’ and that it’s the best food in town.