Seeing snow for the first time. Encountering more liberal clothing styles and hair lengths. Finding people to be more sociable, such as random conversations with strangers.
They are among the local differences from his home country of Paraguay, as found since last August by Rome Free Academy exchange student Paulo Rojas-Mujica.
Rojas-Mujica, 17, who has spent his junior year as a student at RFA through a Rome Rotary Club exchange program and will return home in early July, has had a range of activities here besides his schoolwork. He played on RFA’s varsity basketball team which recently completed its season; qualified for sectional competition while on the RFA cross-country team; is a sprinter and high-jumper on the RFA spring track team; and has spoken at Rotary meetings about his experiences.
Being in the U.S. for the first time, “everything is like I thought” it would be overall including being in a bigger school yet smaller city compared to his hometown of Coronel Oviedo, Paraguay, Rojas-Mujica said in an interview this week at RFA.
But that also has meant many differences from home.
“I had never seen snow before. It was, like, crazy,” observed Rojas-Mujica. He went skiing for the first time, including three trips to the Woods Valley Ski Area facility in Westernville.
Also, here there is “more freedom” in hair, style and clothing, “more open,” he remarked. His hair, for example, “was shorter in my country,” he added.
In addition, people here are “more...social,” such as when going to a fast-food restaurant “you can start a conversation with another person about a burger....Even if you don’t know the other person....they just talk to you.”
Rojas-Mujica, who is staying with the Pilny family in the Town of Lee, is the son of Paulo Rojas and Carolina Mujica. He has a younger brother and older sister. This is his first extended time away from Paraguay, after some previous brief visits to neighboring Brazil and Argentina.
He wanted to come to the U.S. because he likes to play basketball, and “basketball here is really big-time.” Being on RFA’s varsity team was “a really good experience;” players here are more skilled overall, he noted. He also came here to experience American life, “try new things, learn English, make new friends.”
Prior to his trip to the U.S., Rojas-Mujica knew “just some words” of English and “practiced for a month” before coming. He was interviewed in English for his student visa document. At RFA, he said his grades are in the 80s and 90s for classes other than math, at which he has not done as well. “I don’t like math....I’m not a math guy,” he commented.
Whereas he went to a private school in Paraguay for grades 7-12 with about 400 students total, at RFA Rojas-Mujica is in a school for grades 9-12 with nearly 400 students per grade.
“It’s kind of impossible” to know every RFA student, he said. “Every day I see a new person.”
Classes, meanwhile, can be “really far” apart and “here I have to walk to all my classes” which was not typical at his Paraguay school.
Conversely, Rome is “really quiet” compared to his hometown, which is more “like a Syracuse city,” said Rojas-Mujica. In his country there are several larger cities and “not a lot of towns” as seen locally, plus “here you have to take a car everywhere.” He may get to see more of the U.S.; he said he may be going on trips to New York City and North Carolina with the Pilny family.
When asked what he has liked best about his stay here, Rojas-Mujica cited skiing for the first time; playing varsity basketball; playing in random basketball “pick-up” games at Lee Town Park; and “hanging out with fellow students.” His favorite U.S. basketball player is D’Angelo Russell of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.
While here, “I get a little homesick” but “not too much,” Rojas-Mujica said of his U.S. stay. “Sometimes I miss it....Most of the time I’m fine.”
Gerry Pilny, who along with his wife Julie and son Curtis are hosting Rojas-Mujica, said “we have had a lot of fun dealing with Paulo and watching him grow more confident with his English skills, which has included developing a sharp sense of humor.” Curtis is a junior at RFA, and Pilny said “we thought this would be a great opportunity to get used to having to deal with a ‘roommate’ prior to college.” He added his wife’s brother hosted a student from Switzerland last year, and “we spent a great deal of time with him.”
Of Rojas-Mujica, Pilny commented “it’s been enjoyable watching someone who never saw snow in his life not only deal with it but attempt everything from skiing at Woods to ice skating to even making snow angels. He certainly has made a lasting impression on us all.”