When you ask French exchange student Shyrel Rapp to describe what her life at Smithtown High School East has been like, she has a quick answer.
“It’s really like the movie — 'High School Musical.' ”
“In France when you go to school, it’s only school, you don’t have sports teams or clubs,” Rapp said. Now she’s been to her first pep rally and homecoming and joined the school’s art club.
For Rapp, even small things have been new and exciting. From the lockers — whose combination locks are unlike her French school’s key lock — and the desks, with their built-in armrests.
Rapp, 16, prepared for her 10 months as an exchange student by watching YouTube videos of American girls talking about their lives, and movies. She says she can understand English better than she can speak, but wasn’t quite prepared for the slang.
Her classmates “don’t speak American, they speak their language like ‘bro’ and ‘dude’ and everything,” she said.
A classmate even told her she speaks like his mother because she uses outdated, proper English.
In three months on Long Island, Rapp has become friends with classmates and fellow exchange students, visited Manhattan and taste-tested Chick-fil-A and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (she gave both two thumbs up).
She tries to only chat with her friends and family back home twice a week, to limit homesickness at the recommendation of the exchange program. When she sends photos and updates, her friends are jealous, saying she’s living the American dream.
Even on the flight over, “I was just chilling in my plane, I didn’t really know what was going to happen but then I got here and I was like ‘Whoa, I’m here, it’s happening, but it’s OK,’” she said. “I wasn’t even stressed or afraid.”
Host mom — or host sister?
“She’s so well adjusted, I like to think part of that is from my family but I think she would’ve been fine just about anywhere,” said Gina Lanfranchi, Rapp’s host mom.
Lanfranchi, 28, has quickly found herself thrust into the role of mom. She initially had concerns about her “first kid” being 16 — “Is she going to be needy?” “Will I have time to do my own fun things?” “How am I going to manage this?” — but says hosting Rapp has been a blessing.
She carries out all the parental duties, from attending back-to-school night to setting boundaries when Rapp wanted to go to school though she was feeling sick, or when she wanted to stay out too late.
“I still do feel like a big sister more than a mother.”
Rapp confides in her about her experience, much like a sister. They bonded over a shared love of pop music, Shawn Mendes, language and culture and “cheesy” Hallmark movies. Rapp also teases Lanfranchi about things like being bad at taking selfies, or when Lanfranchi broke out of her practical mode and chose a sports car as her rental car after a minor accident.
Lanfranchi was inspired to be a host mom because of her own, at times rough, experiences abroad in 2011. She studied in Grenoble, France and quickly realized her French wasn’t as good as she had thought. When she spoke, people either responded to her in English or stared at her “like she had 18 heads.”
She stayed in a dorm and found “there’s no residence life, people aren’t looking after you, it’s just a place that you stay.” For her, French colleges were very different from American. She found it more rigid and thought the professors weren’t as nice, often yelling at students for answering questions incorrectly.
Lanfranchi says her saving grace was befriending a woman in a youth group, who it turned out also lived across the hall from her. When she returned to France three years later as an English language assistant at elementary schools in Valréas, her friend helped her find a host family who gave her a sense of home and stability.
“I was able to get more involved in my school just because I had somebody to ask questions to, which gave me the confidence to go out and stretch myself,” she said.
Lanfranchi now teaches French at Berner Middle School and Massapequa High School. She says having Rapp in the house has helped her better connect with her own students.
They live with her mom, two adult siblings and a 2-year-old niece. Add to that other members of her big Italian family coming in and out, and there’s always plenty going on.
Lanfranchi’s mom, Debra Lanfranchi, 63, said though some of her friends and co-workers thought she was nuts to take in a French teenager, the experience has been great. Rapp, who she likened to a new granddaughter, is “very pleasant, very helpful and sweet.”
“She’s like one of the family,” she said.