Bella Giunta, 16, of Galloway, left early this month for a year in Madrid, Spain as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. The Absegami High School student will spend her junior year at a public high school there, after studying Spanish for three years.

Exchange students know they have made a breakthrough when they begin dreaming in their new language, said local Rotary New Generations Director Joel Kopke, of Galloway, who has hosted many exchange students over the years.

"Everything is good when that happens," he said. Kopke is responsible for all of Rotary's youth programs in the district, including high school clubs like Interact and college clubs such as Rotaract.

Giunta and three other exchange students from southern New Jersey will be sharing their experiences adjusting to a foreign culture through the Students Abroad blog on The Press of Atlantic City web site, which debuts today.

"The overall goal of the program is to promote peace," said Kopke. "It's young people acting as youth ambassadors, in an effort to promote who we are as nice people."

In her first posting , written Sept. 18, Giunta acknowledged the language challenge is huge.

"I was able to manage speaking with my peers and making friends with people who have the patience for my third grade abilities, but it's the teachers (especially my philosophy professor) that are the hardest to understand," she said. "I ended up handing in a blank test today ... For once, will somebody just please slow down!"

She talked a lot about the beauty of her adopted city, and how much she enjoys her newfound independence.

"Every time I turn a corner, I see what I swear is the most beautiful building ever . . . until I turn the next! Even the McDonald's here look like they were ripped out from the pages of a history book," she said.

"I find myself infatuated with the sense of independence I get from simply navigating the web of streets ... my feet carry me about four miles a day. This makes me less guilty about all the bread I've been eating."

Giunta isn't afraid of homesickness, she said. She has always wanted to travel the world and get to know another country.

"They come back two years more mature," said Kopke, whose daughter Jenna, now 24, spent a summer in Metz, France as a teenager.

The other three students participating in the blog are Eliza Freeman, 16, of Haddonfield, Camden County, who is living in a suburb of Berlin, Germany, called Dallgow-Doberitz; Kalla Jovanovic, 16, of Pitman, Gloucester County, living in Denia, Spain; and Rosy Tucker, 18, of Haddonfield, living in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Other students who went abroad on the Rotary exchange include Olivia Fama, 16, of Linwood, who is living in France, and Audrey Baker, of Ocean City, who is living in Belgium.

Students are coming to our region from countries including Brazil, Italy, Hungary, India, France and Thailand, Kopke said.

"It's all girls going out, and lots of boys coming in," he said.

Bella reported in her second blog entry that she is getting lots of questions about the U.S. from Spanish students, and she hasn't been able to escape from the reach of the "Jersey Shore" TV show.

The students ask: "'Where am I from?' 'Why Spain?' And my favorite: 'Is America beautiful?,'" she said. "Once I let leak that I am from New Jersey - well you can guess what they asked about then. Jersey Shore, of course. I guess we'll never get rid of that horrible representation, not even outside of our country. But hey, it helped me make friends."

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219

Students Abroad blog

To read the blog, visit