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Foreign exchange student happy to stay at Capital

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fernando Martinez, a foreign exchange student at Capital High School, welled up with tears when Kanawha Superintendent Ron Duerring received a text message during a school board meeting last week that put to ease weeks of worry for the 17-year-old.

Earlier this month, a Kanawha County Schools employee sent Martinez' "host mom," Julia Wright, of Charleston, an abrupt email saying that the county's certification to take in students like Martinez was going to expire July 1.

"It has just become too much of a liability for the school system. Please tell Fernando so he can make other plans," the email read.

The email said that the school system did not plan to seek recertification for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), and suggested Martinez, from Spain, try to transfer to a private school or elsewhere.

The email stated, "I'm not sure if any other counties in West Virginia can issue them.

"He wanted to stay with us. ... He said, 'I'm not leaving you guys. I don't want to go to another school,'" Wright said. "He was very worried. We were talking back and forth with his parents in Spain through Skype, trying to figure out what we could do."

In a nutshell, Martinez needed an employee to sponsor him and take on the paperwork, because the employee who had been doing it had changed her mind.

Martinez was heartbroken. He had spent two years at Capital and planned to graduate from the school. He had made friends as a member of the soccer and tennis teams, and was recently named the captain of the lacrosse team for next season.

He worried he'd have to return to Spain, where he'd have to repeat a year of school. He worried he'd be moved to a school out of district and have to find a new host family.

"It was scary. Out of nowhere they said I couldn't come back," Martinez said.

"What made me fall in love with this state was the kind and helpful people who always made this foreigner you have in front of you feel like he belonged in this wild and wonderful place, West Virginia, since day one," he told board members at a meeting Thursday. "There are certain things and people from this place I will never forget in my life.

"All I ask for is a understanding of my situation -- humanity and respect for my academics," he said. "Why don't we open our arms to opportunities of having people from different countries and cultures to not only teach them but also learn from them?"

After some back and forth discussion between the school board members, saying someone in the system had "dropped the ball," it was decided that it all came down to a misunderstanding.

All Martinez needed was a school employee to sponsor him.

But Duerring warned that that responsibility could be a liability for the school system.

"No one is stepping up to the plate," said Jim Withrow, the school board's legal counsel.

But then someone did. Hearing Martinez' story is all that it took.

An employee at Thursday's meeting, whom the board did not name, sent Duerring a text saying they'd gladly take on the responsibility to keep Martinez at Capital.

"When I heard that, I was like, OK, this is a miracle," Martinez said. "I wasn't even expecting an answer that day. That moment, just to have someone support me and willing to do this for me, was just amazing."

Wright, who said she's been in "protective mom mode" trying to help Martinez, said the family is thrilled to have him in their home for another year. She and her husband have four children, and Martinez fits right in.

"It's like he just belongs here. Our whole family has learned a lot about his country and his culture that you don't get when you just travel to another country. It's the day-to-day things that you learn about other people," she said. "I think people would be surprised about how easy it is to have an exchange student if you just open your eyes and hearts to what they have to offer.

"It was our first time doing it, and we'd do it all over again if they were just like Fernando," she said.

While Martinez has not decided where he'll go to college, the Wrights say the day he graduates from Capital will be bittersweet.

"I never thought I could welcome someone I didn't know into my home, but he's become like another son," she said.

Martinez will return home to Madrid this summer and come back to West Virginia in time for school to resume at Capital. The Wrights plan to vacation there this summer and meet his parents for the first time.Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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