Sunday, March 11, 2018

Stepping Back and Diving In: Being an Exchange Student and How it Changed My Life

I recently did a sermon at my church about my experience as an exchange student and it went over very well. Below is my sermon, which I think serves very well as a summary of my experiences.

This sermon is about my whole story. My whole exchange story, including the time I spent in Chile, the time before it, and the 2 years its been since. Because you’ve probably heard it in bits n pieces. A food I tried here. Someone I meat there. But, if I told you my whole story, it would take a lot longer than 10 minutes. Even the abbreviated version of what I did and what I learned would probably take days, no, months, because I think about it all the time, and I’ve lived it for 4 years. I could talk about it forever. Just ask the girl from Ohio who asked me for my advice on being an exchange student to Chile, or look at the sheer number of posts on my blog, Peace Love and Travel with Willow. So, here is the best I can do. The snapshot version of my “whole story” if you will.

Here is a typical school day for Willow in Chile.

In the morning, I would wake up at 6:30, shower and put on my green plaid skirt with a white polo, sheer tights, and black shoes. I would then make breakfast for me, my 13-year-old host sister, Camila, and my 11-year-old, developmentally delayed, host brother Renato, which was usually, 2 spoonfuls of instant oatmeal in a mug with hot milk. Then, my host mom would drive us to school. 
At school, I would kiss all of my classmates on the cheek, and then I’d take the day’s classes from the weekly schedule, with these same 26 people. Each of these classes was followed by a 15 min recess or a 30 min break for lunch. I’d then get off of school at 4:30, and take the public bus home.
Once at home, I would lounge around and watch Netflix or regular TV and text friends, and then work on homework for like an hour. At 8 pm, I would eat Once, which is similar to a tea time with breakfast esc food, like hallulla, my favorite Chilean bread, with jam or cheese, and tea, and talk to my host family for a little while. Then, I’d go back to watching TV until bed at 10 or 11 during my later months or until I conked out at 8:30 during those first few months.

I know to you this probably sounds very relaxing, especially as the sort of lazy Saturday you come across once a month, but is it still so luxurious as a daily routine? And weren’t you expecting something a little more exciting from an exchange student? I know I was. Like maybe accounts of a Willow who explores lost civilizations on the weekends, not one who goes to the food court at the mall. Or maybe a tanned and smiley Willow with a sexy Spanish accent sitting on the beach and eating empanadas, not spending a summer playing endless games of cards at a cottage, miles from the ocean. Or even maybe you expected, an upset Willow having to eat super spicy horse meat or getting hopelessly lost during her travels up and down Chile, and not the bored, goofy, slacker Willow that I encountered. I definitely expected the exciting. The glamour, the intensity, the business of being an exchange student, only to find that life as an exchange student is still just that, life and that life is not always exciting.

I did eventually do some of these things. I visited Patagonia in November, Easter Island in April, Pucon in May, and Santiago more than once, with my fellow exchange students, host family, and friends. I ate freshly killed lamb for Christmas dinner, and a lot of avocados. And I did get lost on a public bus on my way to the mall during my last week in Chile. I did a lot of really exciting, glamorous, and stupid, story-worthy things, but I also did a lot of normal things. Normal things that taught me more, that I remember more. Like bonding with my host brother over a cake batter mishap, and chatting with my Danish friend over coffee.

The photo on the cover of your order of service is a painting. A 4ft by 3ft oil painting titled “The Whole Story” that I painted a year ago. The piece will be part of my graduation gallery here at the church during the end of this school year if you would like to see it in its full glory. The point of the piece was to show my frustration when people looked at me expectantly for wild and crazy exchange stories. You know these stories, I’m sure you’ve heard people tell them. I wanted to show that being an exchange student is not about that, and actually contains very little of that, the bright yellow cup and pie. That in fact, the majority is spent doing the mundane things that make up living life in another culture, represented by the dark background shapes and the words from my journal.

It was not my story worthy moments that taught me that failure is ok, or that showed my best Chilean friend, Maite, that not all Americans are the opinionated and ethnocentric TV personalities. I became fluent in Spanish because I went to school, and I chatted with Chileans. I learned to trust myself, not just my work ethic, but my whole self and my competence in stressful situations. I learned what walking out of your own life, not once but twice, feels like, and the true heartbreak of seeing your best friend for what will probably be the last time ever. But with this sorrow, I learned the real and intense happiness of sighting your family at the Fort Wayne Airport and bursting into tears, or of resting your head on your friend’s shoulder during math class. I learned to walk around open and vulnerable, so as to feel the world in its entirety, with all my emotions and senses heightened and available. I learned how to cope with boredom and culture shock by enjoying the little things. Like the view from a tall tree and the freedom of owning a bike.

Now that you know my whole story, you probably realize that it is full of ups and downs. ¿Pero, así es la vida, o no? Have I ever regretted it? Going off of the beaten path. Did the pros outweigh the cons? Sure, sometimes it is hard to think of my best friends Laura, Maite, Kathy, and how far away they are and that I haven’t seen them in two years. But meeting them taught me how to be a good friend and to talk to people. Sure I spent a lot of time doing absolutely nothing, but that taught me how to relax and to not take everything so seriously. Plus, there are the additional perks of getting to know before I applied to college that I could handle being away from my family. And, of not having to study for anything ever in Spanish class. And having interesting things to say in my college essays. So no. I don’t regret it. I never regret it. If I got to do it all again I would still pick going to Chile. I would still pick exchange.

When I look at the 211 photos I have in an album on my computer that I chose to encapsulate my exchange, I kind of do go back. I am flooded with memories of my year and of the people I shared it with, and also with an intense desire to share these memories, and to help other people experience the extreme beauty of exchange through going abroad, hosting, or listening to talks like this. Because of this intense desire, I have spent the last two years earning my IB diploma, and thinking about or sharing my exchange with others during my free time. I’ve talked at Rotary clubs, and Marquette elementary. I attended conferences to prepare future exchange students and to comfort them and their parents. Now, as I enter into the next chapter of my life, and close up my time as a Rotary Youth Exchange ambassador, I pass the torch to my little sister with a happy heart, knowing that I have had a successful exchange, and that she will do the same and continue to create world peace, one student at a time.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Why stop?

After creating an exchange blog that was such a huge success, and which became such a big part of my expression and documentation for three years, it's now done. I am moving on with my life, and although my memories from exchange are still with me, I am not in that era of my life anymore.

I had the idea to make a blog about my college preparations, and the new era of my life that I am entering into, but I was dragging my feet because this all seems so much more boring than exchange. Like, who wants to read about some girl applying to college? Well, I asked myself the same thing at the beginning of my last blog campaign, who wants to read about some girl submitting visa paperwork and learning Spanish? Well, you all do. So maybe you will like this next blog. This next step. Or maybe I'll find a new following. I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Well, anyway, here's the link to my new blog- Enjoy, and thank you for being such great readers! Feel free to use the blog navigation tools to look at past stuff, as I think it will still be useful for exchange students to come and for me to remember the year I spent in Chile.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Flag. The People. The Memories...

I had a Chile moment. They happen to me sometimes when I'm just doing normal things.

I was in the middle of doing my summer homework, and my pen ran out, so I went upstairs to get a new one. When I was searching for one, I saw my flag. The one that my people signed when I left. The giant flag of chile that has so many memories and so much love written onto it. The one that embodies the tradition of and reason for youth exchange. That flag.

So, well, I got distracted and picked it up and started to read it.

As I read those words, it came flooding back to me. All of my people. My Chileans. My exchange family. All their love. All my love. All the reasons I never wanted to come back. Our love for each other was created and magnified through the fragile and temporary nature of our relationships. We observed and enjoyed each other all the more because we knew that it would all have to end in June. Is this what they mean by live each day as if it was your last?

Through the notes left on my flag by these people who knew me in such a unique way, I have re-discovered little tidbits about myself. Stuff that my family and my people here, who know me forever do not realize. It was a very precious opportunity we had when we wrote on those flags. However, I think I may have ruined my chance by trying to play it safe and not writing what I really, truly felt about those people who I loved. I only hope that in my attempt to not cause contempt, the messages I left on other peoples' flags were not too sanitized, and serve to help them discover more about themselves, as their messages did for me.

thank you, to my people from Chile. For now, I have something to write about in my college essays.

a picture of my flag I took right when I got back

Friday, June 9, 2017

One year already?

     I can't believe that it's now been a year since I came back from Chile! I have successfully completed all three years of my exchange. The applying year, the actually away year, and the coming back year. So now I am supposed to move on. -? I still have the urge to cling to my exchange self, my life, my stories, my experiences. This year it felt ok to be moving on and making new friends and settling back in because that is what one is supposed to do. I was just trying to survive reverse culture shock. But now, I am officially freed from all of the duties of being an exchange student. I am just another teenager, and my exchange is a distant memory.
     However, when I look at pictures from my exchange, or eat avocado, or see a math problem on my SAT that I learned how to solve in Chile, it all comes flooding back to me and I just want to go back in time and re-live that year over, and over again. Like Groundhogs Day. :) Que rico.
     But instead, I usually just begin to tell some story that is totally irrelevant to everyone else, and they smile at me as if sarcastically showing their interest. And so the logical Willow slaps the over-excited Willow on the hand, and I return to reality and move forward.
     Sometimes I really do wish I could go back. Not just back to Chile, because my Laura wouldn't be there, and my host family wouldn't be in Temuco anyway. I want to go back to my year. When it felt like in June the world would explode, and every new day was a challenge for my ambassador self. But, how boring would that be? To go back? I already did that. I have a new chapter of my life to explore, new challenges to scale, new lessons to breach. I will soon be an adult and go off to college to live on my own for the rest of my life, not just a year.
     So, I think of that and push on. I push on and I begin the next chapter of my saga. The applying year, the four away years, and then when the world will explode in June.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

My Week in 4

4. High Points: the promise of spring break. "shopping" for a free prom dress. laser cutting class.
3. Low Points: track meet. stressful English exam/presentation. the promise of spring break.
2. Me Moment: walking home from track practice with shins wrapped in ice bags, holding a painting.
1. Rebound Moment: Looking at two simple pictures and feeling my heart fill with emotions which I can't even describe, and just when I thought I was free, wishing that I was back.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

who is She?

who is that Girl I see in all those photos on my desktop?
I recognize Her from somewhere. well,
I've seen her so many times, yet I don't really
have any idea who She was.

I know who I am.
of course
I mean, I'm Me,

My priorities are:

but who is She?
She seems like She has nothing in common with Me.

Her priorities are:
and well,
how should I know?

Mine and Her's don't line up anyway.

well, I guess we have some things in common.

passion for travel,
focus on the future,

you've seen Her? yes?
do you know Her?
probably better than I do.

it's a good thing She made this blog...

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Now is The Good

After my last blog post, I realized that it really must seem like my life really sucks all the time. Some youth exchange ambassador I am! So, first I just wanted you to know that my life is pretty good most of the time. But when it's good, it just feels normal. But when I'm having a bad day, I feel the urge to document my sorrow. For what reason? I'm not really sure. 

So, even though I find myself in the heat of the end of the semester, with upcoming finals and miles of homework, I found myself enjoying this week quite a lot. I seem to be getting back into the groove of things. My friends laugh at things I find funny, and I don't feel left out of the loop. They're sweet. And actually, I find myself enjoying the full swing of school and full IB. It's hard, but it's also engaging. My classes are far more interesting than anything that I've had in a while. I'm a nerd, and it's a lost cause, but I really like school at the moment. 

It's also nice to be home. Do I miss Chile? Yes. of course. But do I wish I wasn't here, in the place I've spent now almost 16 of my 17 years in? Watching the snow fall down and being in control of almost my entire life? With traditions I understand now more than ever? No, I don't. It's nice to be back. 

I had a presentation for my Rotary Club this past Wednesday. It went well. Here's the link to the powerpoint I used below.