Exchange student returns to visit host family

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Submitted photos Above: Giovanna Russolo, shown above with her husband Francesco De Seta and daughters Anna and Francesca, visited Glendive this week to spend time with the family that hosted Giovanna as part of a foreign exchange program when she was in high school 30 years ago. Right: Giovanna stands with Hilary and Jean Hopfauf, her host parents.

For the family of Hilary and Jean Hopfauf, reunions involve international travel.

Thirty years ago when the Hopfaufs invited Giovanna Russolo, an exchange student from Italy into their home while she attended her senior year at Dawson County High School, they had no idea how strong a bond they would form with her, Jean said.

Now Giovanna still calls Jean and Hilary “Mom” and “Dad.” Their son Paul Hopfauf is like a brother and their daughter Pam Dean a sister. The bond even extends to the next generation. Her daughters, Anna De Seta and Francesca De Seta consider the Hopfauf grandchildren, Michael Hopfauf, Alex Hopfauf, Elizabeth Dean and Christopher Dean, their cousins, she said.

“It’s been fun to watch how the next generation keeps contact,” Hilary noted.

The first years after graduation tested their communication skills. They had to rely on letters and occasional visits. Now social media makes those contacts much easier. Facebook really helps connection, Pam noted.

The Hopfaufs flew to Italy in 2000 when Giovanna married Francesco De Seta and the newlyweds came to Montana for their honeymoon. “It’s our special place here,” Giovanna said. “The first time it was like a vacation. Now it’s like coming home,” Francesco added.

In 2007 and 2008, Giovanna, Francesco and their daughters lived in Iowa where Francesco, a medical doctor, worked at a university. Her parents came to visit and they all drove to Glendive to celebrate Christmas with the Hopfauf family.

“It was such a great time, a big family reunion,” she said.

The six “cousins” are all about the same age and all get along really well. Christopher, a student at the University of Mary is planning to go to Rome to study for four months and is already figuring out how to visit his Italian family while he is there, he said.

The family has made the most of their short time together this summer. They spent a few days at Fort Peck, enjoying the lake and also taking in a performance of “The Mermaid” at Fort Peck Theatre. They had a picnic at the A-Frame in Makoshika, one of Giovanna’s favorite places. They drove to Medora where they went horseback riding and attended the musical and drove out to Bloomfield to show her daughters the country landscape, Giovanna related.

They also visited DCHS so the girls could see where their mother attended school. When she walked into the building, Giovanna noted, “It still smells the same.” Touring the classrooms and showing the girls the auditorium, she realized again how amazed she had been that such a small community had such a nice facility, she said.

Seeing the new football field and realizing people still care about the school and are interested in making improvements also made her happy, she said.

One of her first impressions of Glendive and one she still treasures is the friendliness of the people. Europeans are not as outgoing. When her daughters saw her greeting people she met on the street, they asked her, “Do you know everyone?” She assured them she didn’t. That was just how people interacted here, she said.

They also managed to get in a little shopping and ran into an old classmate in one store, Pam noted. Giovanna recognized her right away. Chatting with her made her wish they had time to do more with classmates and left them hoping she could return next year for their 30 year reunion.

Giovanna’s daughter Anna is 16, the same age she was when she came to Glendive, and is thinking about applying to a foreign exchange student program. Being able to drive at 16 sounds totally cool to her, Giovanna said.

People sometimes ask Jean what it was like to bring someone into their home for that length of time, she said. She tells them it is important to treat foreign exchange students like your own children. She learned a lot about herself during that year and felt her life enriched.

“It was a good fit,” she said. “It was meant to be,” Pam added.

Even though Paul was away at college during the year Giovanna lived with them, he and Giovanna were still able to form a close relationship and he has visited her family in Italy several times, Pam noted.

“It really worked out well,” she said. “I learned so much about Italian culture and cuisine. It wasn’t just her learning from us.”

“It works both ways,” Giovanna added, noting that learning to know people from a different culture and country makes the world a little smaller.

“I remember everything about that year,” she said. “It was such a different year of my life. It was very hard to say goodbye.”

Thirty years later, that part hasn’t changed. Saying goodbye is still hard, not just for her but for the whole family. Their time together is always too short, they said.

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