Exchange students, Kasey Self, from Bridge City and Marta Benzo, from Italy, enjoy spending time together.

Adventure came knocking and two teenage girls opened the door.

There are over 5,400 miles between Texas and Italy, but that didn’t keep Kasey Self, daughter of Wesley Self, and Marta Benzo, daughter of Michele and Enrica Benzo, from taking advantage of the opportunity to visit a different country. 

Kasey attends Bridge City High School and is 16 years of age. Marta is from Cirie’, a small city in Turin, Italy and she is 17. 

Marta arrived here July 17 and will stay with Kasey for about six weeks. Marta will preset the Italian Rotary flag to the Rotary Club of Bridge City at the Community Center in Bridge City, Thursday, August 7, at noon. 

Kasey applied to be an exchange student in January of 2014. The process was very intense and involved lots of meetings and several interviews that helped her to be well prepared for her visit. 

She went to Italy where she stayed with Marta and family for several weeks. While there she presented the American Rotary flag to one of the Rotary Clubs. This is an international expression of good relations between the United States and Italy.

“When you are an exchange student you are an ambassador for the US,” said Kasey. 

“Going to the Coliseum in Rome was her favorite memory. “It was mesmerizing and amazing!” she said. 

She also really enjoyed getting to know Marta’s friends and staying at her family beach house in Liguria, a little region in Italy, which offers tranquil beaches and beautiful views of the mountains. She is also quickly learning to speak Italian.

There can be many challenges when you are far from the familiarity of home. But when you have your own personal friend as a guide it makes it a lot easier to visit places with a different language and culture, explained Kasey. She plans to go back to Italy to visit after she graduates.

“You learn to grow up and make your own decisions,” she said. “Seeing people your own age in a different part of the world and how they act is really awesome. It was different not having people around who spoke English all day long. It’s like America but condensed and smaller. Italians walk a lot to get from place to place. Obesity there is not a problem.”

“The best part about being an exchange student is it broadens your mind in how you think about other societies,” Kasey added. 

One downside for Kasey was missing her family. She also felt quite out of place at the airport in Italy. She was detained while going through customs and almost missed her plane departure.

“Don’t change your hair color after you get your passport. It will make things a lot easier,” she explained. 

Sharon Messer Bowling, is Kasey’s Grandmother. She is a strong believer in the value of travel as an educational, mind broadening experience. 

“These two girls will never forget their travels. It has been a delight to have Marta around. She blends right in and taught us all how to make real pizza from real pizza dough,” Bowling said.

Marta said the process for applying to be an international exchange student is easier in Italy. But everyone there told her she was crazy to go away. Her response was, “If you don’t try it you never know how it feels to travel and the feedback is very positive.”

Marta is a more experienced traveler than Kasey. She has been to the United States with her parents twice before, but not to Texas.

“I was expecting more open land and a lot more horses,” she said smiling.

She has studied in London and speaks fluent English. “ I love traveling and I am use to being away from my family,” said Marta. Her favorite place so far in Texas is San Antonio. She also visited the Capital, the San Marcos caves, Crystal Beach and a beautiful deer lease. Locally, out at Bailey’s, she got to have a real deep south Texas encounter with a huge alligator that decided to make a big flop in the water right beside the boat she was in. 

She likes hydro sliding and fishing and the simple things we enjoy here in Bridge City. But mostly she likes just hanging out at the house with friends. 

“In Italy you hang out mostly in the clubs with friends,” she added.

Visiting here has changed her lifestyle. “It’s the best experience I have ever had,” she said.

 Marta is looking forward to going home and being a role model for others and sharing her experiences with friends. She wants to encourage more teens to be exchange students and she is thinking about attending college at Lamar.

“It just gives you a greater understanding of how others relate to the world,” she said, “and teaches problem solving because you are basically on your own.”

The girl’s birthdays are both in April, only one day apart. They are planning to celebrate together and are certain to be special, lifelong friends.

A student exchange program allows students from a secondary school or university to study abroad at one of their institution’s partner institutions. A student exchange program may involve international travel, but does not require the student to study outside of their home country. The National Student Exchange program offers placements throughout the United States and Canada.

 Exchange students live with a host family or in a designated place such as a hotel, an apartment or a student lodging. Costs for the program vary by country and institution. Participants fund their participation via scholarships, loans or self-funding.

Student exchanges became popular after World War II and are intended to increase the participants’ understanding and tolerance of other cultures, as well as improving their language skills and broadening their social horizons. An exchange student typically stays in the host country for a period of 6 to 10 months. International students or those on study abroad programs may stay in the host country for several years and some exchange programs offer academic credit.