The exchange must go on

Tomas Canals makes his way to the U.S. despite hurdles


Photo courtesy of Tomas Canals.

Foreign exchange student Tomas Canals poses for a picture under the St. Louis Arch. One thing Canals misses about living in Spain is being able to walk everywhere. “In St.Louis you can go to the pharmacy, the bank, the post office, and to a restaurant and never get out of your car,” Canals said.

Abby Prywitch, Editor-in-Chief

The pandemic has cancelled a lot of things, but exchange student Tomas Canals did not let COVID-19 stop him from traveling all the way from Spain to the United States. It was not an easy process, and they encountered many obstacles along the way. 

For example, the U.S Embassy in Madrid closed, many flights were canceled and the U.S government considered not issuing visas,” Canals said.

This was Canals’ last year to be able to be a foreign exchange student, so his host family did everything they could to make it happen.

There were numerous times where we could have easily given up, but knowing the experience that Tomas has already had makes us certain that we made the right decision,” host father Stephen Rutherford said.

Canals and his host family are grateful that principal Tim McCarthy allowed him to enroll, as schools are not required to accept exchange students and some school districts banned all exchange students this year.

Both Tomas and his host family take the virus seriously.

“Nothing is 100% risk free, but Tomas knows that masks are needed and he took all of the necessary precautions when travelling to the USA. I work in a job where I am considered an essential worker so I’m used to going out and dealing with people,” Rutherford said.

Virtual school made it harder for everyone to have social connections, but for Canals it was his first year attending Parkway Central. He made the boys varsity soccer team which allowed him to meet new people.

“Sports is a great way to make friends in any country, so I was happy that I had the opportunity to join the team and make friends,” Canals said.

Canals believes being a foreign exchange student is an experience everyone should have. His father and his host dad were both exchange students in high school and they were both greatly impacted by it.

My older sister was an exchange student to Arkansas last year so my natural family was very supportive,” Canals said.

Canals talks to his family around once per week. His host family can notice how much his family means to him.

“Tomas is a very respectful and mature person. He comes from a large and very close family in Barcelona. It’s easy to see that family is very important to Tomas and we know he misses his natural family. He knows that he was given a great opportunity to be here in such a unique year and he is making the most of it,” Rutherford said.

“I’m experiencing a real American family life. My English is improving day-by-day, and I’m learning a lot about my American hometown, St. Louis,” Canals said.

Tomas’s host family are not Catholic but they support his desire to go to mass each week and introduced him to a local Catholic landmark. 

We enjoyed showing him the Cathedral Basilica here in St. Louis which has the largest collection of mosaics outside of Russia. Having sons from different religions has led to some fascinating discussions,” Rutherford said.

The Cathedral Basilica is one of his favorite places in St. Louis.

“It reminds me of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City,” Canals said.

One of the biggest differences Canals noticed about living in the United States is that in Spain he lived in an apartment in downtown Barcelona and here he lives in a house in the suburbs. In Spain, he rides a subway to school instead of a school bus. Another difference for Canals is regarding meal time.

“With my natural family we eat breakfast and dinner together. Here my American dad is gone before I wake up,” Canals said.

The Rutherfords have been hosting foreign exchange students since 2005 when their four children were three, five, one and a half, and six months. They started hosting students because of Rutherford’sexperiences as a foregin exchange student when he was in high school. 

“Twenty years after my experience I told my wife I wanted to give a young person the same opportunity. My wife responded by saying, ‘Are you nuts?’ In the end she agreed to try it and after the first year we were hooked,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford believes hosting is one of the greatest educational gifts that parents can give their children.

“Our natural children now have brothers all over the world. They’ve learned how to recognize the humanity in others especially in those who may not look the same or approach issues in the same way, “ Rutherford said.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about being a host family is that you have to have a high school aged kid to host which is not true. Rutherford believes that families with elementary school aged kids make great host families and even empty nesters can be wonderful host families.

“I know a few couples who turned to hosting when they were unable to have children,” Rutherford said. 

There are never enough host families for the number of kids who want to come. Rutherford’s tip for being a successful host family is to view the student as your own son or daughter. 

“If you can truly see the student in this way, then you never want the year to end,” Rutherford said.