Once upon a time…
There was a girl (me) who was sent far away from home by her parents while she was still in high school. She was to live with another family in another country for an extended period of time… The girl was forever changed.
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I will never forget the first time I had a PB&J sandwich – it was in Tampa, Florida, at the Chamberlain Senior High School cafeteria, in the mid 80’s. Yes, what a strange thing to remember, but for me the discovery of peanut butter mixed with purple jelly and spread onto bread was a memorable one as a teenager, as it marked the first of many new and different experiences I would have during my stint as a foreign exchange student in the United States.
My parents had always had a plan: to seek better opportunities in life, even if that meant leaving their home country of Perú. I think moving to the U.S. was a logical choice for them, as they were fluent in English. They were practically newlyweds when they secured student visas, and despite family objections they moved to Miami where they hoped to build a new future. Then came little I, but before I could wobble about without falling my parents were forced to return to their homeland after their visas expired and they couldn’t renew them. I know they were disappointed, but for them it was a given that one day I would return to the place of my birth.
A few months before my 16th birthday, my mother, the progressive-thinking woman that she’s always been, decided it would do me well to get immersed in the American culture, so I would know what to expect when the time came to leave the nest and find my own future in the U.S. My mom located a group that specialized in organizing the exchange between students in the U.S. and Perú. I was to be immersed in the American culture by spending most of my summer vacation living with an American family, attending high school, working, and learning new things.
I remember being very apprehensive about this new plan my mother had concocted, even though by that time in my life I had lived in 4 different countries spanning 3 continents, spoke English fluently, some French, and even some Afrikaans and a bit of Zulu(!), which I had learned while living in South Africa. My point is – it wasn’t like I hadn’t been in new territory before, yet what caused me the most stress was that I would be away from my parents for the first time in my life.
My host family, (a father who was raising three beautiful daughters along with his second wife) waited for me at the airport with open arms. I spotted my American sisters right away – they were holding up a huge, colorful “Welcome, Gloria!” sign.
Our cultural differences became evident almost immediately when I proceeded to kiss every member of the family, something that took them by surprise a bit, as I later learned that hugging was their preferred form of greeting. I initially had trouble understanding their fast-paced English, and as I walked with them to the car wearing my native Peruvian knit sweater (Uh… thanks, Mom!) and eyeing their cool clothes, modern hairstyles, and perfectly applied makeup I felt like an outsider. Little did I know that a few months later we would all be back to the same spot kissing, hugging, crying, and swearing eternal friendship.
My experience as an exchange student in the U.S. is one that I will never forget. Simply put, it was a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to learn about another culture and about myself. Being without my parents was initially horrifying, but that lasted only a few days. I realized that we are all basically the same – despite our different cultural backgrounds. And it was good to be away from my mom and dad – I learned that I could be the daughter they had raised without having them around. I could make good and sound decisions on my own – and if I didn’t (which a couple of times I didn’t; ie: smoking, skipping school – and lying about it), then I had to be an adult, admit my errors, and take responsibility. I think this experience helped me one step further in becoming an adult.
Anyway, aside from the peanut butter and jelly discovery, there are many other American memories that I still hold close to my heart: My first jobs in the U.S. with my American sister, Traci – learning how to scoop ice cream for anxious customers at Baskin Robbins (still my favorite ice cream because of the memories it brings back) – and babysitting (something that was so foreign to me, as my parents paid live-in maids to take care of my siblings and I as kids); getting lessons in the art of applying makeup by my oldest American sister and later cruising in her Corvette around town and feeling important; discovering Judy Blume books, high school parties, and blasting Billy Idol on my sister’s portable cassette player; going to the mall and clutching a teddy bear while getting my ears pierced for a second time; trying out for the cheer leading squad (and not making it); being picked up for my first real date with a boy (and hearing my American dad give the necessary pre-date lecture); rushing to KFC with that boy (my new boyfriend, Mike) at lunchtime and devouring hot biscuits with honey under the bleachers; skipping school for a day and driving with Mike on his Dodge pickup to Bush Gardens – and getting seriously grounded afterwards; and so many, many more.
It has been more than two decades, but I still remember walking towards my parents at the airport in Lima, sporting high top Converse sneakers, a Psychedelic Furs t-shirt, two earrings in each ear, a boom box under my arms, and Mike’s army “dog tags” around my neck, and feeling like a new and improved version of myself – inside and out. I think my parents were taken aback at the new me. Of course, I was the same person, but something had clicked. I knew that I would be okay moving from adolescence to adulthood.
I can’t thank my parents enough for being so open-minded and giving me the chance to learn about another culture, one that today I consider my own.
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Have you (or your children) participated in a similar student exchange program, whether in high school or in college? How was your (or their) experience? Would you recommend doing something like this to others?
Resources – The following are just a few of the many companies that organize exchange-student programs, both at high-school and college levels:
AFS-USA: They have been successfully exchanging students all over the world for more than 65 years. (High School) www.afsusa.org
ISEP (International Student Exchange Programs): This non-profit organization facilitates student mobility for academic and cross-cultural learning. According to their website, “ISEP students gain intercultural competence through integration into their host institution and host culture while exploring the international dimensions of their academic field.” (College) www.isep.org
ESCP (European Identity Global Perspective): This organization states that students have the opportunity to take part in a exchange programs with one of its over 100 partner universities in Europe and the World. www.escpeurope.eu