By Cory Erickson, Hillsboro Banner
It wasn’t the final chapter they were hoping for, but Victor Gonzalez and Pedro Marodin have no regrets.
The pair of foreign exchange students said their socially distanced goodbyes at the end of May, returning home after a nine-month stay at a rural home south of Hillsboro.
For the pair, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic dampened the last months of their visit in the United States.
“I feel like our time was cut off,” Gonzalez said in an interview prior to his departure back to Madrid, Spain May 28.
“Because of quarantine, we didn’t have time to say goodbye,” added Marodin, who returned home to Curitiba in southern Brazil May 23.
The duo spent this school year with Steve and Andrea Knudson in Kelso, where the two teenagers were able to go on walks and explore the rural landscape – different from their crowded home cities on other continents.
The Knudsons took the students to various places across North Dakota and Minnesota during their time in Kelso, including a trip to Itasca State Park in Minnesota and a weekend at the lake.
Gonzalez was involved in speech and basketball while Marodin took stats for the Hillsboro-Central Valley boys basketball team and participated in Hillsboro High School’s academic and Science Olympiad teams.
The boys said that the relationships they made through those activities – with their coaches and pupils – made them feel welcome right away.
“They’re very nice,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like the relationships that the teachers make with students – here, they love what they’re doing.”
He added that a highlight during his time at Hillsboro High School was being on the sidelines for the Burros’ run to a Region 2 boys basketball title March 12.
“I really liked when we went to regionals with basketball,” Gonzalez said. “It was a good week to finish school.”
Their stay in the United States took a sour turn days later due to the threat of COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus.
Gov. Doug Burgum announced March 15 that schools across the state would turn to distance learning before that decision was made permanent for the remainder of the school year May 1.
With in-person classes and activities canceled, Marodin and Gonzalez were separated from their new friends.
As they stayed with the Knudsons in Kelso, their thoughts turned to the virus in their home countries.
Gonzalez’s home in Spain was particularly hard-hit in the early stages of the pandemic.
“My parents just told me that they’re doing OK and doing fine,” he said.
“Our host-family mom is a nurse, so that helped us feel safe,” Marodin added.
The students’ exchange agency recommended the students head back to their home countries at the beginning of April.
However, after consulting with families, Gonzalez’s family recommended he stay in North Dakota due to the low number of cases in the state and the rising number in Spain.
Also, with international flights hard to come by due to the decrease in travel demands, Marodin said his parents felt comfortable with him staying in North Dakota to finish out the school year.
After his recent flights home, Gonzalez planned to go to a music festival and hang out with friends again in Madrid – after he asked his mom or grandma to make him something to eat for the first time in nine months.
Marodin said he would be getting right back to studying, as his senior year starts this month in Brazil.
“As soon as I get back, I’m going to bed,” he joked.
While both students said the coronavirus kept them from enjoying many events they were looking forward to – including state tournaments, prom and watching their friends graduate – Hillsboro High School will remain a special place to both.
“I’d like to come back to Hillsboro one day,” Gonzalez said. “I hope I get to see everyone again. I don’t want this to be goodbye. I tell everyone they can come to Spain.”
“We were unlucky that all of this happened this year,” Marodin added. “This has been a good experience for life. It’s not like you’re a traveler – you actually live here.”
Both wanted to thank their friends and the Knudsons, especially, for taking them in over the past school year and treating them like their own children.
“We’re very thankful,” Gonzalez said. “If they didn’t take us in, I don’t know what would have happened to us.”