Bridging Cultures: Bella's Journey from Brazil to Iowa and Beyond

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Izabella Casagrande, or Bella, as her host family and friends know her, spent her entire life in the vibrant, coastal community of Vitoria, Brazil. By 18, she dreamed of traveling to the United States for a year of international cultural and educational exchange. With help from CIEE, Bella was placed with a family in Dubuque, Iowa through the Department of State's BridgeUSA Secondary School Student program. 

Bella’s journey officially began when her host mom, Dawn, decided to host an exchange student. After working with many families and exchange students as a local coordinator for CIEE, Dawn realized that she wanted her own family to experience the joy of hosting a student. That's when she met Bella. 

Over time, Dawn’s family helped Bella embrace this new culture of America. Bella reveled in her new favorite foods – glazed donuts and American tacos. She enjoyed her host dad’s deep passion for football and eventually became a fan too. Bella visited her first pumpkin patch and learned the tradition of Christmas stockings. Bella fondly remembers her arrival to the United States, saying “I got here, and I [already] had this huge, welcoming family. Everyone is so loving!” 

Adjusting to her new family came naturally, but fitting in at school presented a different challenge. Due to weather issues, her days at Hampstead High School were shortened, giving her limited time to get to know the other students. 

But Bella remained committed to keeping an open mind regarding American versus Brazilian culture, and she was determined to make the most of her time in the United States. She worked backstage with the school’s theater group, joined the dance club, tried out for track and field, and volunteered – filling her schedule and meeting students with similar interests.

One month into her exchange year, Bella came home with tears of joy, announcing that she finally felt like a true American high school student. 

When asked how her exchange year has affected her, she said, “Being an exchange student has allowed me to know myself and has helped me learn to figure things out for myself. This experience has made me realize that whatever comes at me in life, I’ll be fine.”

Despite the end of the school year and her impending return flight to Brazil, Bella’s adventures in Iowa are not over yet. Bella has been accepted to the Fashion Design and Merchandising program at Iowa State University and will return to Iowa in Fall 2024 as a college freshman. 

She plans to live in the dorms but spend long weekends and holidays at Dawn’s house in Dubuque – showing just how strong their connection has become. 

This summer, Bella will return to her hometown in Brazil to catch up with her friends and family and share the details of her exciting and transformative year in the United States.

Bella’s story embodies the mission of CIEE and the BridgeUSA program: to help people gain understanding, acquire knowledge, and develop skills for living in a globally interdependent and culturally diverse world. 

Her transformative year in Iowa highlights the profound impact of international exchange programs, fostering mutual respect and understanding between cultures. Bella’s journey reminds us of the importance of these programs in building a more connected and compassionate world, one exchange student at a time.