Last August, Irene Huguet-Barberia left her family and her hometown of Pamplona, Spain, to head off to Long Island and her junior year of high school at Wantagh High.
Huguet-Barberia, 16, who started learning English in school when she was 6, said she came to America for the experience and to learn about the culture. Five days after she arrived in the U.S., she started the school year.
She has never been away from home this long — seven months so far. “At first it was a big deal, because it’s a lot of time and I’m so close with my family and my friends,” she said, “but everything has been perfect, and I’m so happy here. It has been the experience of my life.”
In Spain, she attended the high school in her neighborhood of Mendillorri as a sophomore last year. She will return to her home country in June for her senior year.
Huguet-Barberia lives with a host family in Wantagh — Lucy and Steve Cates and their son, 11-year-old Chase. She has virtually become a member of their family, according to Lucy, who said that Huguet-Barberia has been “a really great addition to the family.”
She was placed with the Cateses by the International Exchange Student agency in Bay Shore. The family hosted an exchange student from South Korea last year, and wanted to host a student again.
Lucy said her family doesn’t speak Spanish, but Huguet-Barberia’s English has been improving since she arrived in the U.S. At first, the family had to speak slowly for her, but now she understands almost everything.
Lucy added that Irene has been doing remarkably well with her academics, and “excels in everything she does.” She has a 97 average in English class.
She regularly Skypes her father, Patxi Huguet, her mother, Susana Barberia, and her 13-year-old sister, Aitana, back home. But living with the Cates family has been amazing, she said. “Since the first day I came here, they have treated me like their daughter,” she said. “That has been so good for me, because I feel like I’m at home.”
Huguet-Barberia, who is 5 feet 10, has also become a positive addition to the Wantagh Warriors as a center on the girls’ varsity basketball team. “I’ve played basketball since I was 8 years old, and I really wanted to play here,” she said.
At home, she played in Basketball Club Mendillorri and another club, Mutilbasket. Sports are not a part of high school in Spain, she said, adding that the sport is different here, incorporating more set plays, while Spanish teams play a freer style.
Wantagh Coach Stan Bujacich said that a long season was another big adjustment for his new player. “You could see in the middle of the season she started getting a little sore here and there,” he said, “and then she caught her second wind two weeks ago. So now she’s back to par where she was at the beginning of the year.”
Bujacich added that Huguet-Barberia has been a solid addition to the team, and fits right in. “She plays great defense,” he said, “and she’s an outstanding passer.” In fact, she will receive an All-Conference award at the Nassau County Basketball Awards banquet, on March 26, recognizing her as one of the best players in Conference A-4. She averages roughly 6 points per game, along with 6 rebounds and 3½ assists.
Bujacich said that Huguet-Barberia gets along with everybody, and that the student body loves her. “You have to be a special person to come from a different country, go to a different high school, learn the English language … and then do well in school, and then get accustomed to your host family, get accustomed to the kids in school, and then the basketball team and the basketball coach,” he said. “It’s a lot of adjustments.”
In addition to basketball, Huguet-Barberia is involved in the school’s 20/20 club and the Key Club. “I really wanted to join some clubs to meet all the people,” she said.
In the 20/20 club, a program for the junior class, she helped organize the Homecoming parade, and is now raising money for the prom on April 6. In the Key Club, she has gotten involved in community service, such as helping out with a fundraiser at the high school in January to fight cancer. “I have an uncle in Spain with cancer,” she said, “so for me it was so important to come and support all these people.”
Huguet-Barberia said that attending Wantagh High has been her favorite part about being in the U.S. “In Spain we go to the high school, but we are not that close to the teachers [and] with all the grades,” she said. “Here they hang out all together. It’s cool.”