From Madrid to Colstrip: Foreign exchange program sees a comeback across Montana

After years of planning and anticipation for her foreign exchange trip to the United States, one thing quickly stood out to 16-year-old Carmen Garcia shortly after arriving in Colstrip from Spain.

“Well, it’s really cold, I have to say,” she said with a smile.

It’s one minor adjustment among many that the self-proclaimed city girl braced for as one of 12 exchange students currently enrolled in Montana high schools through the Forte International Exchange Association (FIEA).

This year’s students reflect a major upswing in local placements following only one student three years ago and none over the past two. For the 2022-’23 year, local field reps have placed students from Spain, Brazil, Germany, Mexico and the Netherlands across Billings, Lockwood, Gardiner and Great Falls in addition to Carmen and one student in South Dakota.

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Born and raised outside of Spain’s capital of Madrid, Garcia admitted she was shocked early upon arriving in the small energy town, but that it was also to be expected. She explained that her father enrolled in a similar program while he was in high school and that she had been planning her own residency for years. Additionally, the program is designed to place students in settings based on their hobbies, interests and preferences expressed in their applications.

In her case, this meant a city and school with opportunities for basketball and skiing. She also explained how driving into Spain’s capital city isn’t too unlike driving into Billings from Colstrip.

Still, language barriers, homesickness, differences in curriculum and even styles of basketball were initial hurdles, but that the welcoming nature of the community made it easy to adapt. She said the local students quickly welcomed her and were eager to learn more about her and her culture while local residents quickly became neighbors.

Coming from an area with a population of nearly seven million people to one with just over 2,000, she believes the biggest difference comes from the greater sense of connectedness.

“Everybody knows everybody, everybody cares about everybody and we’re just a big community here,” she said. “Like, if you have a problem, you can go to your neighbor and they care about you. I feel like that’s the difference from other places that are bigger than Colstrip.”

There are certain requirements that an exchange student must meet throughout their tenure. They must maintain a C grade point average or higher and participate in school activities to remain socially and academically engaged throughout the year. In Carmen’s case, this has included the high school’s cross-country team and starting on the varsity basketball team.

Going from a high school of 700 students to one well under 200, Garcia explained that the relationships here are also closer, with the school acting as more of a centralized environment where friends, academics and athletics all come together rather than stay separate.

“Here, everything is close together. I have friends in basketball that are also in the school and that doesn’t happen in Spain,” she said. “And it’s been good, because I get to see everyone in the same place.”

From Madrid to Colstrip: foreign exchange student spends year in Colstrip

Colstrip High School foreign exchange student Carmen Garcia runs during girls basketball practice at the high school on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

The small town of Colstrip has also provided her one American pastime she’s unable to experience back home: cruising with her friends since the driving age here starts at 16 years old rather than 18 in Spain. Since arriving in August, she’s explored the city and state, taking in the beauty and history of its Native American reservations and cities further west like Missoula.  

Conversely, Garcia’s shared her own cultures with students that’s included celebrating Equinox or Three Kings Day along with Christmas Day, and eating 12 grapes for good luck on New Year’s Eve.

“She an excellent student. She’s got good grades and her teachers adore her,” said Colstrip High School Principal Robin Nansel. “Very quickly, she went from Carmen to ‘Carmie’ and she just fit in. And she’s also brought a unique perspective into the classroom because she adds her experiences. So that’s been fun.”

A positive experience

FIEA is an independent nonprofit educational and cultural exchange program, a designated sponsor program for the J1 visa program and is among the 50+ certified J-1 Programs with the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel for the 2022-23 schoolyear.

Rhiannon Briggs has been a local FIEA representative based in Billings for the past three years and a former host parent. She attributed this renewed interest to waning concerns over COVID-19 and increased efforts by local representatives to pair families with students.

“I just really want these students to have a good time,” she said. “With school, with the families and activities, that’s the one thing that matters most to me is for them to have that good experience.”

From Madrid to Colstrip: foreign exchange student spends year in Colstrip

Rhiannon Briggs is photographed outside of Colstrip High School on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

She admits that not every exchange is successful, with some students returning early due to home life challenges with their host families and adjusting to the new environment in general. Briggs said two students this year have returned home prematurely for these reasons, but that all other scenarios have been positive. She reported students in Billings making the teams in sports they had never tried before like women’s wrestling at West and football at Senior High School.

Before this can happen, though, there can still be provisions preventing  applicants from transferring over to U.S. schools. Briggs said various districts across the state may have only limited numbers of exchange students or have previously rejected applicants due to lacking class space or accepting students from other exchange programs.

With all this being the case, Briggs and other representatives in Great Falls, Dillon and Cut Bank have increased efforts both in recruiting families, convincing school boards and superintendents to accept more students and making the application processes for all parties as straightforward as possible. Requirements include a background check, references, student/family preferences and activities determined ahead of time to ensure a good fit for the student.

In Garcia’s case, host-father Monty Bilbro recounted the application process as straightforward with hardly any issues getting matched as a family.

“I don’t think the paperwork was too terrible,” he said. “And it’s all been good. How could we ask for anyone better than Carmen?”

From Madrid to Colstrip: foreign exchange student spends year in Colstrip

Colstrip High School foreign exchange student Carmen Garcia is photographed with her host father, Monty Bilbro, at the high school on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

Garcia will stay in Colstrip until the end of the schoolyear in June and hopes to try out for the school softball team and hit the Montana ski slopes before returning to Madrid. Going forward, she plans to continue visiting and traveling with her host family across the state and country and, one day, welcome them to her home.

“I feel like my expectations were achieved. My expectations were having a group of friends, having a family that I feel like I’m at home with and feeling real comfortable where I live and I feel love…so yeah, it’s been really nice,” she said.

Briggs and Forte are currently recruiting for the 2023-24 school year. Students interested in applying and families interested in hosting can find more information at FIEA ( or contact Briggs directly at