The Story Behind My Journey
By: Suheila Peña
Everything changed this year: I started a new life, I created new bonds and learned more than I could ever imagine. I’m just a seventeen-year-old girl who was born in Torreón Coahuila, Mexico. My parents have always wanted the best for my sister and me. When my sister was sixteen years old, my parents decided that it would be a great idea for her to spend her junior year as an exchange student in the United States. It was a success; my sister learned a lot an
d had an incredible experience, but let’s focus on my story. Six years later, my parents decided that it was time for me to live the same experience. I won´t lie, I was extremely afraid, but at the same time excited and looking forward learning about a different culture and traditions and meeting new people. I booked the flights and prepared myself mentally and physically. When I say physically, I’m referring to the two big suitcases where I had to fit all my stuff for the next ten months.
The journey started when I arrived in Elon, North Carolina on the 14th of August. After a hard goodbye from people I love, long flights, making new friends on the airplane and almost getting lost in the Atlanta airport, I arrived safe and sound. It was a sunny day; the weather was perfect! My first impression of Elon was that it is out in the country. There are not many tall buildings like in the city that I am from. Elon is full of trees and there´s not a lot of traffic. My host family received me in a very nice way. We talked for hours and it seemed like we had known each other for a long time. They are the most wonderful host family in the world. I can´t imagine this experience without them, but before going too far in the story, let me start by telling you more about Mexico´s lifestyle and culture and how it compares to the one here in the United States.
Mexico is a country with many traditions. The most popular and well known include; Day of the dead, “Día de Reyes” (3 wise men), the Independence of Mexico and Posadas. I love Mexico because the people are fairly laid back and are fun loving, and we always want to enjoy the outdoors and the sun. Family and friends are a very important aspect of our lives. When I moved to the United States, you could say I had a “culture shock”, mainly because the pace of life here is faster and not as relaxed as Mexico with a calm rhythm. The difference in time and meals is also different. In Mexico, I get out of school at 1:45 pm I go home and rest or help my mom cook our big meal, which is at 2:30 pm. After eating all together at the table, I help clean the kitchen and then I take either a 30 minute or 1-hour nap. After the nap, I start my homework and at 6 pm I go to the gym. When I come back from the gym I finish my homework, take a shower, eat dinner and go to bed. Here in the United States, my daily routine is very different, but day-by-day I get used to it.
Mexico and the United States have differences but also similarities in culture. For example, I love how women and men here will usually smile, shake hands or wave even if they don´t know you. In the religion aspect, most people in Mexico practice the Catholicism and here in the USA there are a variety of religions. We both celebrate holidays such as Christmas, Valentines Day and Easter. However, there are some that we don´t celebrate back home. This year I got the opportunity to celebrate my first Thanksgiving. There was a lot of food, and when I say a lot, it is A LOT, with all the different traditional Thanksgiving dishes. There were also family members that came from all around the United States. We talked, laughed and we performed a dance for everyone. It’s something that my host brothers and their cousins do every year. I had an amazing time and best of all, I learned about this holiday and its importance for the American culture. On Halloween, I carved my first pumpkin ever and it was so much fun! Also, this year was the first time I saw snow, went skiing on huge mountains and went sledding in the white snow! I had the most magical Christmas. Learning about this traditions and living new experiences has opened my mind in many different ways. Visualizing how two different cultures can be really similar and different at the same time has also opened my world.
While it is a blessing to live in the United States, it is also a challenge. I am a social and friendly person; this has helped me a lot in the adaptation process. When I first arrived I was afraid that I wouldn´t fit anywhere, but throughout this experience, I have met friendly and welcoming people who have made this easier. I can´t explain how much I love all my friends and host family. I have created really strong relationship bonds in school and outside school. Thanks to ETC (my traveling organization), I have met people from all around the world: Brazil, Italy, China, Spain, Germany, and France! I identify myself a lot with these friends because they are going through the same thing as me. I have learned from all their cultures and languages. We went ice-skating, to the beach, shopping, to fall and winter festivals and parties together. Most of them did the exchange program for just one semester. It was sad to say goodbye, but I know that these friendships will last forever even if we may not see each other in five or ten years. Oh, coming back to my host family, words can´t even describe how grateful I am to have them in my life. They have supported me through bad and good times. Every time I´m homesick or something bad happened they cheer me up. I can describe my family as charismatic, cheerful, funny, emphatic and with many unique aspects. They almost make it feel just like home.
The thing I miss the most besides my family is the atmosphere with the people and my friends, and also the delicious Mexican dishes. I also love the American food, in other words, fast food. I have cooked for my family some of the typical dishes from Mexico. I made tacos de discada, guacamole and molletes; even though they didn´t taste exactly the same, when I took a bite I could imagine myself sitting at the table of my favorite restaurant back home, the loud music, the people, and the amazing dishes in front of me.
I have learned a lot from this experience, and I have grown as a person. I have become more independent, responsible, organized, social and active. My English has been improving day by day; every day I learn a new word, meaning or slang. This experience is not yet done, but I can tell you that I have been through many challenges and all I have gotten from them is to know that we need to enjoy the moment, enjoy every second of our life because any day, hour, minute or second is not going to be the same as the previous. Time goes by so fast and when you least expect it, it is all over. God has placed me in the hands of amazing people that I am so glad to know and grateful to have in my life. This hasn´t just been “A year as a foreign student”, this has been “The start of a new life”. I am going to take with me everything that I have learned from this beautiful country and teach it to people back home. Many people ask me “How can you do it? I´ll never do it”, all I can tell you is that if someday you have this opportunity, take it. You are not going to regret it, you need to be brave and risk because nothing can substitute experience.
Last but not least, I just want to finish my story by thanking all the people who made this experience special in some way. Thanks for opening your hearts and your minds to a new culture. But mainly, thanks to my parents who worked so hard to make this possible; words can´t even describe how much I admire them. The story behind my journey has come to an end.
My name is Sabrina Sponfeldner, an exchange student from Germany. I spent my Exchange year in Peoria, Arizona in a nice neighborhood surrounded by cacti. The mountains are beautiful and the sunsets are nothing like I have ever seen. I am going to miss the perfect weather (I am told it’s less than perfect in the summer).
My Host sister, Sophie, is 13 years. She is really talkative and excited all of the time! I think she was more excited for me to join her family, than I was about coming to Arizona. Chase, my host brother, was shy in the beginning, but he turned out to be the younger brother I always wanted.
Having younger siblings gave me the opportunity to be the big sister and I really enjoyed it. You can compare my host parents, Becky and Josh, with my natural parents. Becky is in
charge of the house, like my Dad. Josh was very kind and helps his children with homework like my mum! I am thankful they encouraged me to have more fun and to not stress out over school too much. They reminded me that I was here to have the full experience and not to just maintain perfect grades.
At first, I was disappointed when I found out that I would go to a small school. I was afraid I would miss out. On the first day of school, I joined the Girls basketball team, I had never played a team sport! It was a wonderful experience which everyone should have. After a few weeks, I realized I liked going to a smaller school. The students were nice and the teachers understand how hard it is the first month. In the beginning I was really homesick and started crying in class. I went to the Office and talked to the Principal. She hugged me and gave me tissues and was very thoughtful. What made the school the best was that several other foreign exchange students went there. We became fast friends. The small school turned out to be a perfect fit for me!
My best memory in the USA was visiting the Grand Canyon! Four of my friends and I got up early and drove several hours in a really small car. We listened to music and made many stops to eat. We drove back the same day and it was awesome!
Looking back at these past 5 months, I see how important it is to step out of your comfort zone and just do it! I surprised myself as I became more outgoing and adopted the friendly attitudes of Arizonians. I learned how to laugh at myself and to not take everything too serious. I was in many awkward situations, but after all of them the world was fine again. The exchange helped me to be more independent and taught me to take every opportunity. I even joined gymnastics with my host sister and learned to do a flick-flack (back hand spring)! Before I came here, I was afraid of dogs but now I will have a hard time without my family’s dog! Milo barks and licks, it’s disgusting but cute.
My advice to all exchange students is to stay open-minded and to always see the good. Take the opportunity to be who you always wanted to be. Say yes to as many new things as possible. Live for the moment and make things happen and don’t wait for a miracle. Arizona became a really meaningful place with forever friends and family. I promise I will come back and you will want to too!!!
Rikako Abo – A lot of Love
My exchange student life has had great memories. I have learned a lot of things in America such as English, American culture, overcoming hardship, and love. You might be think “Love?” Yes. I learned love during study abroad. One big difference between America and Japan is that people show their feelings more. In my experiences American people have been so nice and open to me, showing me love as well as saying it. Americans often show and tell love, but Japanese don’t often do it. This is one of the major differences in culture. Japanese are shy and don’t show the feelings that they think. I’m very shy and I can’t express my feelings easily as well. My host family often says “l love you.” to each other. It’s very sweet, and when someone says it to me, my feeling is so happy! I’ve never said it a lot to my family. I just tell it only on someone’s birthday or during a celebration. That changed my feelings. I felt like I should tell them more than I thought. Also I have to think more about my family and make my relationship with them more important. Before I came here, I was very selfish. I realized how I was selfish, didn’t do a lot things by myself and depended my parents. Now I’m washing my clothes and do a lot of things by myself. Studying abroad is not just to study English, I can improve myself and I can find out who I am. Before I came here, I dreamed about what it would be like to be a part of a family like my host family. I believe my dream came true. Each day I have spent really living a fruitful life with them. When I can’t understand, they try to explain things to me and tell me new things, even my little host siblings! When I’m sad, they try to encourage and comfort me with good advice and a hug. At school, many teachers and friends have helped me. When I can’t understand during class, teachers explain it to me by using easier English and by talking more slowly. My friends help interpret to other friends because my English has a different accent and sometimes people can’t understand. My friends have taught me many things such as popular songs, dances, and some American slang. Also many students say hi to me in the hallways. The boys taught me American handshakes as well. I have had so many opportunities to meet people and make new friends. I have lovely friends who support me in Japan. On my birthday, my classmates made me an amazing video for me. I was so surprised and moved by their kindness. When I go back to Japan, I want to set a good example for us all. I’m so glad that I could study abroad and meet a wonderful host family, friends, and people! I felt many people’s kindness and love in America. Also my family and Japanese friends are always supporting me and encourage me far from the small island of Japan. I’m full of gratitude for them. I was moved by all of their warm heartedness. This experience is going to be such a significant memory and help me in so many ways in my life.
Discovering America and Nature
What most of all characterizes the experience of exchange students like me are innovations. Before coming to the US, I had never lived with a dog, and now there is Sadie; I’d never had any such addiction as the one I’ve now developed to vanilla milkshakes (I am already detoxifying!); and, besides tons of other examples, outdoor activities had always looked interesting to me, but I had hardly ever gotten to experience them.
During spring break, Chris, Meredith and I went for a week to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. Those days let me make many tiny breakthroughs about this new kind of holidays.
On the first weekend, Meredith and I drove to their place in the south-western corner of Virginia, a pretty house built in an idyllic frame — a grassland, the forest, two houses and a Christmas-tree field, with the Mount Rodgers Recreation Area surrounding the spot. On Friday afternoon we hiked on the Appalachian Trail, and went on with three short hikes in Grayson Highlands on Saturday. On one of the rocky outcrops we reached, I realized that my fear of heights was no longer limiting the pleasantness of those hikes: and it became clear to me that uncontaminated nature actually exists — and there we saw a whole bunch!!
By Sunday I started feeling slightly shameful about how lucky I was — my school friends were either idling all day or working, while my Italian friends had no spring break! But this kind of guilt trip was wiped out by the adrenaline of the nice outing Meredith proposed me: an 8-mile bike ride by the creek, down and up the Virginia Creeper Trail, a converted steam train rail. She had ridden that for years, but for me it was the first time I’d ever biked at high speed: pure fun!!
That night, Chris joined us, and on Monday we headed southward to camp till Wednesday in Pisgah National Forest. There I took up an even better disposition to exploit my chance like crazy, and great gratitude towards Meredith and Chris. We saw eight waterfalls, followed a whole lot of variously-sized streams, stared at wintry landscapes of broad-leaved forests; Chris and I slid down a chilly creek at “Sliding Rock”, and he introduced me to Frisbee-golf. During this week, I experienced camping life for the first time, and set two illustrious eating records.
Thereafter we headed back to our place in Virginia, because it was going to rain for two days. We relaxed as needed, and on Friday had a pleasant bike ride.
For the conclusive weekend, Chris and I went camping again on Kerr Scott Lake, and he introduced me to mountain biking. After a shaky beginning, Chris’s advice helped me control my bike better and better, and we had a fabulous time speeding up down the declivities around the lake. This sport requires high concentration, which I lack: keeping it up could teach me how to generally focus better. “Momento is your friend”, Chris told me all the time, thus keeping the number of my falls under the dozen (I think).
In these months here I am really gaining a possibly life-long passion for those activities, as well as lifetime friends, a new family, partial football understanding, culture, language skills, preposterous pizza topping choices, insight, awareness that host parents in their 40s can thrash you on the bike, etc. Guys that are about to start an exchange period know they’ll change, but it’s interesting that shifts will occur in unexpected ways and at a surprisingly blistering pace. And since these shifts will always result in personal improvements or benefits, they need without fail to be discovered and gone through!! I recommend my experience to all students on earth, reminding them to be most flexible… And wish them to find an awesome and active host family like I did!!
Damiano Aliverti Piuri from Milan, Italy
2015/16: The best year of my life
Hey, everyone! My name is Sara Zech, I’m 17 years old, and for one year I decided to turn my life upside down and do something really crazy. I decided to become an exchange student and leave EVERYTHING I know behind: My school, country, language, friends, and even my family. I grew up being the youngest of 4 sisters in a small town in Bavaria. I was born there and, until I turned 16, I had never left it for longer than 2 weeks.
But then I got on a plane and all of a sudden I moved in with a new family, people I’ve never met before and barely knew. I still can’t believe how quickly they became my brothers and sisters, my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, … They are the most amazing people I’ve ever met and I can’t be more thankful of the incredible opportunity they gave me. At that time I had no idea how this year would be and if I would love or regret it. I didn’t even know how to pronounce Albuquerque, New Mexico, my new home. A place with 500,000 people instead of the 12,000 I was used to. Most people probably wouldn’t call it a big city, but for me it definitely was.
The first few weeks were overwhelming. I had to get used to speaking English, an American high school with school spirit, meeting new people and trying to remember at least a few of their names, new food (that I absolutely love now, how could I ever live without green chile breakfast burritos?), etc.
And I absolutely loved it! I almost felt bad when I had to tell my German parents on Skype that I wasn’t homesick at all after 3 months were already over. The moment when I first met my host family and a little 3 year old girl jumped into my arms at the airport I just felt so welcome and I knew this year was going to be amazing.
I got to see so many new things, I went to school assemblies with cheerleaders and sports teams and homecoming dances, took an American school bus, climbed the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty in New York, went to a pumpkin farm, swam at the beach on Honolulu and visited the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, I stood in 4 different states at the same time at Four Corners, drove through Monument Valley in Arizona,… and I feel so lucky I got to experience all these amazing things!
But I wasn’t always having a perfect day. The first time that I really missed home came around Christmas. It’s probably hard for every exchange student, there are just so many traditions every family has around the holidays and suddenly they’re just not there. You get pictures from your family celebrating Christmas the way they always did with you, while you get the chance to celebrate it a different way this time. But fortunately, I had already found great friends by that time and I knew my host family was there for me, too. It wasn’t the last time that I felt homesick, but I ever had to be alone, someone was always there for me. I just had the luck to meet the kindest, most amazing people here and I can’t imagine my life without them anymore.
Before August 2015 I didn’t know what being an exchange student means, but now I know at least some parts of it.
It means you’ll get really funny questions about the place you’re from, but also getting the opportunity to teach people about your country and share your culture.
It means you’ll sometimes be confused about what place you call your home. It means you’ll get used to not understand something, but sometimes you will just be too tired to ask and smile and nod your head. It means being brave and trying new things without knowing what will happen.
It means leaving your heart in multiple places and never getting all the pieces back. It means having two families and so so many new friends, but probably also losing people you thought were your friends.
It means finding out who you are and what makes you – you. And it’s worth it, I promise! My exchange year will be over in only 6 weeks and I will leave my family and best friends to go back to my family and best friends. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Laura Maria Giunchi – ETC story – Year 2015/2016
My name is Laura Maria, I’m from Italy and right now I’m spending this school year in America. I live in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and I am a senior at Thomas MacLaren School. I decided to be an exchange student because I needed a change, I wanted to do something important by myself and I wanted to learn more about this amazing country: I saw this as the perfect opportunity to do so. So far this has been the greatest experience in my life. Coming to live in Colorado has been a huge change for me and it hasn’t been easy, but I have the best host family I could ask for, I met wonderful people, I got a chance to travel around the US (I went to Los Angeles, New York and Utah), I went to Mexico and I experienced the “American life” I’ve always seen in movies and news: going to an American high school, having lockers, going to Homecoming and Prom. I also had the opportunity to keep dancing, which is one of my biggest passions and I share this passion with both of my sisters. Being here changed me a lot. In the past months I grew up and I got a chance to see America as Americans do. I learned the most from the people who are hosting me; they all made me feel welcome and part of the family. From my side I did the best to share part of my culture with them as differences and equalities between Italy and US. I feel like now I’m more mature than I was when I first came, I’m more open and friendly and I’ve learned how to deal with everyday problems. My experience here is almost over, I only have less than two months left. It feels strange to think that I only came here in August because it seems like I’ve lived here since forever. It took a couple of months to get used to this, to adjust new habits and get to know new people, but I did everything I wanted to do and I had, and I am still having, such a great time. Being an exchange student isn’t easy, but it is totally worth it. Sometimes you feel confused, you don’t know what you are doing or how to relate with people around you, but these are just little problems compare to what you gain from an experience like this. This is something that you can only experience once in a lifetime and I personally think that the secret is to leave every prejudice behind, be open minded and fully enjoy every single moment. Here in Colorado I found a second home and the people I met will always have a place in my heart.
Martina Ferreccio (Denver, CO)
Although I think it’s absolutely impossible to put my whole experience, my “new american life”, into few words, I’ll try my best. Let’s start from the beginning? I’m Martina, an ordinary girl from a small Italian fishing village who had the crazy (but wonderful) idea to completely turn her life upside down, running out of her “comfort zone” to live one year abroad. I remember my feeling last year, at the same time scared to death and super duper excited for the huge step I was about to take. I literally wanted to get back in the “driver’s seat” of my life and try, with my possibilities, to turn a life, already directed in a regular and fixed scheme, into an adventure and a rich experience. My purpose was actually to find myself, to figure out who I really am and whether or not I could get by on my own. Today, already 8 months have passed since the day I landed at the Denver airport, full of hopes and dreams, and I couldn’t be more glad and pleased with my experience here in Colorado. I can’t deny that it’s not easy, sometimes I definitely feel alone and my emotions are able to touch the opposing peaks with a surprising ease. For instance, one moment I may feel like the most happy person on earth and the moment after I may feel suddenly miserable and dejected. These absurd contrasts, however, are likely to be some among the main reasons why this experience is so overwhelming and unique to me. Honestly I think that the best advice I could give to the students who want to spend a year or months abroad is to be always positive and open to new possibilities. If you made a such important decision, you know that you’re brave and strong enough to bear tough time and to overcome any obstacle. I can definitely tell you that it’s going to be worth it all. Both the good and the bad times. Try not to waste the precious time in your hands doing what you could easily do in your home country, such as locking yourself in your room with a computer. Go out, tighten ties with the amazing people around you, spread always good vibes, laugh, spend time with your host family and your siblings, never say no: you’ll regret it. It sounds like a long time but I assure you that it is going to fly so quickly that you’ll soon realize you’re about to come back home and you’re not ready yet. Probably that’s exactly my feeling at the moment? A part of me can’t wait for hugging my family and friends at home but the other one can’t even think about coming back to my “normal life” knowing no one will ever give me these moments back. I love my life here, I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world and I feel like my heart is breaking apart when I think about leaving it forever. I created a whole new life with wonderful people I’ll never forget. Every single moment of this experience will be a precious and inestimable memory that I’ll bring along forever. Throughout this year I feel like I changed and I grew up so much, now my perspective is wider and I definitely think that I’m ready to face whatever the future holds for me.
The Life of a French Exchange Student
My name is Léa, I’m from Bordeaux and I was 15 years old when I did the Exchange. I lived in Beaverton, Oregon for 10 months. I arrived at the end of August 2014, very excited about living the “American dream”. Being an exchange student is so extraordinary. You can’t possibly imagine what is waiting for you. You are free, away from home, make new friends, discover new things, try new meals, go to a different school, improve your conversational English, learn a new culture and how to adapt yourself to a new country. But the most important thing is that you will discover things about yourself you never dreamed of. You will accomplish things you thought impossible and you will change in so many impressive ways without even realizing it. You will discover hobbies, ways of thinking, and will start to see everything from a different perspective. You will get a new family to call your own. It might be uncomfortable at first, since you begin as strangers, and they might be awkwardness, discomfort, and maybe even some fights, but that is what brings you together. The bond you will develop with your (host) family, as an exchange student is unbreakable. No matter how far away you are, they will always be your second family and a place to call home. But, nobody warns you how fast the time will fly by. Nobody tells you that being an exchange student will be one of the hardest things you will ever do. Nobody tells you that the little things are what you will miss the most. Walking to school, the pretty flowers, frozen yogurt, doing your laundry, the family dinners… So, enjoy every moments, and know that everyday is a new challenge. Don’t be scared of doing anything? if it scares you, it might be a good thing to try. You will have regrets later.
Remember, “will that all matter in a year from now ?”
People get excited when they see you because you are foreign, give you nicknames and want to get to know you during your stay. Most of the Americans are open minded and really easy to talk to. After being away from everything for a whole year, you will never feel completely at home again. Your native language might not be as easy to speak as you were used to and everything will feel well known but at the same time new. You might be sad because you have left new friends, but at the same time happy to see your old ones. The amount you gain is insane. By this I don’t mean materialistic items or weight (although we all gain a little of that too aha). I mean in knowledge, friends, family, and new home. You will make lifetime long friends from all over the world.
I’ll end this little essay by saying the famous quote every single exchange student has heard during their year: being an exchange student is not a year in a life, it’s a life in a year.