Jessica Walters
2013-14 Outbound to Belgium

Hometown: Lutz, Florida
School: Steinbrenner High School
Sponsor: District 6890, Florida
Host: The Rotary Club of Liege-Sud

Jessica's Bio

Bonjour! Hallo! My name is Jessica Walters and I am 17 years-old. I’m going to be living abroad next year… in Belgium! I am so incredibly excited to actually be writing this bio in this journal right now! I've been dreaming about being a Rotary Youth Exchange student since my sophomore year, and after much work convincing my parents, and filling out that incredibly long application, I can officially declare myself as a RYE Florida 2013-2014 Outbound! I live in Lutz, Florida (right outside of Tampa) with my dad and step-mom. My step-sister just recently moved out. I currently attend Steinbrenner High School, and will be graduating early this year. I’m a big lover of theatre, and the arts in general and I hope to pursue musical theatre in college. My biggest dream is to be able to work with Disney and travel to the different parks around the world, working in the entertainment department and helping guests in different languages. I don’t remember exactly how I found out about exchange. All I know was that something clicked and I started researching programs and such, and found Rotary Youth Exchange, which I automatically knew was perfect for me. I got a “no” from my parents for spending my junior year abroad, so I waited a year, and here we are now! Being an exchange student is honestly the biggest dream I never knew I had. During my year in Belgium, I am really excited about becoming fluent in a new language, as well as teaching others about American culture, and learning about other cultures too. Rotary said that we were supposed to act as “ambassadors” to our country, and representatives of our Rotary clubs and Districts. I plan to focus my exchange around this idea and really show others what it is we Americans are like in reality, not just what the stereotypes may say we are. This adventure won’t be easy, but I know it will be the most rewarding experience of my life thus far. I want to thank everybody who has gotten me here. My parents, Mrs. Michelle Schaefer, Mr. Peter Vaka, EVERYONE with Rotary, Katie and Carolin (the coolest Swiss and German exchange students you’ll ever meet), and all of the people who have put up with me talking about this for over a year. I owe you guys everything and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to be able to travel to Belgium and become a foreign exchange student. We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. – Walt Disney

Jessica's Journals

August 18 2013

Pre-exchange post: 8 days left (August 13th, 2013)

Waiting is probably the hardest part. Back in January, I thought the next 8 months of my life would take forever to get through. But now that I'm here, 8 days from my exchange, I realize how short a time that really was. It's the waiting now that is difficult. Knowing that I have just days left, not months, is mind boggling. It's these last days, though, that seem to last the longest.

I think of nothing but my exchange. Things I still need to buy for my host families, what shirts I'll bring with me, how I'll say goodbye to my family for a year. It's in these instances that I understand why I wanted to go on exchange in the first place. It's now that I realize I'm not scared to leave all the I have known behind, and trade it for something new and, well, foreign. I'm not scared of the unknown, I'm ready to live it. I've been waiting years for this, and now is not the time to worry about something I know little of. Now is the time to take in all I have learned, and set it not to pages, but to life itself.

I am supposed to leave on August 22nd, next Thursday (it's August 13th today) with Ella and Savannah, who are also going to Belgium. As of the current moment, none of us have our visas. So you could say we are a bit worried about that. If everything goes as planned, we'll be flying over to Belgium, Brussels to be exact, together, most likely meeting up in Atlanta.

I haven't started packing, though I probably should have. Right now I'm cleaning out my room and putting the things I'm not taking to Belgium in boxes, since after my exchange, I'll be moving out to college. It's weird sitting in my room now, knowing I literally have days of this left, and once I leave, nothing will be the same. I've designed my pins, though I still haven't made them. I'll be making about 200 of them, so I really should probably start on that as well.

In these last days here, I'll be spending my time with friends and family, and in the sun and Florida heat. Everything will be different in Belgium, and though I'm not packed, have my visa, or have my French where I would like it, I'm ready to embark on this journey and start on the adventure of a lifetime.

"All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them." - Walt Disney

September 9, 2013

Well, I made it! I'm finally in Belgium! Well, I've actually been in Belgium for over two weeks, but honestly things have been pretty crazy since I arrived, so finding time to write is difficult.

I left August 22nd at 1:15pm from the Tampa International airport and met up with Ella (from Florida) and Jessie (from Ohio). Riding over with them made everything better, even though we weren't sitting next to each other. The three movies I watched seemed to make the time fly quicker. We arrived on August 23rd in the morning and then had the whole day to get to know our host families and unpack. That was probably the longest, most exciting day of my life. We went into Liege for the first time, and that's when I fell in love with my city. It's so beautiful and historical and perfect in everyway. In my short time here, I've found the best waffle store in all of Liege, and believe when I tell you, they are fantastic. And speaking of waffles, they are such a Belgian stereotype, that Belgians eat them all day everyday. But the thing is, it's kind of true. Here, you can get them in little bags and bring them to school as a snack. Waffles are everywhere her e. They even have them in our vending machines at school! The other Belgian stereotypes like their love of fries (frites), beer, and chocolate are also extremely true.

Everything here is amazing and I honestly can't put it into words how much I love it here. The weather is so cool and nice, and it really feels like fall. Now, being from Florida, the weather now is my winter and I'm freezing a lot of the time, but I really do love it. The past week had a couple of really hot days, like Florida hot, but I think we're back to regular cool weather as it progressively gets colder towards winter.

School: I actually really like school here. I mean, I don't understand most of what is going on, but I bring things to entertain myself during the lessons. I try getting the teachers to like me by attempting to translate the worksheets with my dictionary. At least by doing that, I understand at least a little of what we're doing. The kids here are so nice, too! I was put into 5th grade here, which is like 11th grade back home. My school being an English immersion school turned out to actually be a good thing instead of bad, like I was thinking at first. I wasn't put in the immersion program of course, since I can already speak English, but most of the students in my class know at least enough to be able to communicate with me. I try to only respond in French, but sometimes in these early stages of learning, it's hard, so it's nice to be able to get the point across.

My host family here is so nice and so loving and I couldn't have been placed with a better first family. There is the mother, Francoise, the father, Richard, and my 13 year-old host brother, Romain. And I can't forget my host cat, Biscotte. They are all so welcoming and really try helping me learn French as fast as I can. They don't speak much English themselves, but I think my French has improved so much in so little time mostly because of that. I'm able to understand a lot more than when I first arrived. When I came, I could usually only pick out one word that I knew from each sentence. Now I can usually pick out three or four words that I know, and get the gist of the conversation through that. I cannot wait to see how far my French gets here! I'll also be taking French courses every Monday and Thursday starting next week with the other exchange students at my school and I'm really excited for how my French will improve!

The exchange students here are the best in world! (besides Florida, of course!) Everyone is so great and so nice and so friendly, and we all try to make sure everyone else is comfortable in their new homes and that everything is going alright. There are almost 300 exchange students in all of Belgium, so it's honestly hard NOT to run into someone in the city.

Belgium is also so great. It's so small, so it's very easy to get to a different city through the trains or buses. I now have my very own bus pass, but I still need to get a pass for the train.

I have gotten homesick. I never thought I would get homesick, or cry while leaving Florida, but it happened and I did. You don't know how much you'll miss your family until you're 5,000 miles away from them. I've tried to keep myself busy and go out to do things so it isn't as hard, and believe me, it has helped! Rotary was right. You've got to keep your mind off of Florida and on your host country. Listening to English music has helped too, when my brain's needed a break from the constant French.

I absolutely love it here and I cannot wait to share more stories with you all!

I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him. ~Abraham Lincoln

-Jess

P.S. - If you are a prospective exchange student reading this, please stop, look to the left of your screen, find 'forms', click on it, find your district, click on it, and fill it out. You won't regret it, I promise you.

January 19, 2014

My 5 month anniversary is the 23rd of January. That's in about 4 days from when I'm writing this. Thinking of how much time has passed, and how much I have done and learned and experienced... It's honestly probably easier to comprehend astrophysics. I think back on my first days, my first weeks, and see the person who I was. I look in the mirror, and to me, I do see the same person. I'm the same person I was when I came here. I like the same things, I have the same hair color, I speak in the same energetic, Floridian way. Now, though, I see even more of myself. Exchange, to me, doesn't change who you are. You'll always be you, no matter what you endure and what life throws your way. To me, exchange is more about bringing you, the REAL you, forward. It's about helping you understand yourself, and about teaching you who you were all along. It doesn't give you "new eyes" as some may say. It just gives you a new lense to see thing s through.

Before I left Florida, I'll be honest. I hated Florida. I hated the sun, the constant heat and humidity, how it took so long to get to the places you wanted to go. I hated the cars and the sun-bleached buildings, and the old town I lived in that probably housed more cows than people. Being here though, and being able to use my new lense, I've realized how much I actually love it. I love the sun on my skin. Climbing inside my car and not being able to touch even the steering wheel because it's so hot. The neighbors singing karaoke and the splashes of kids jumping in the pool. The constant feeling of familiarity, and being able to know how people are thinking, how people are feeling.

When you go on exchange, you lose the things you didn't know you loved. You lose them, but only for a year. And when you come back, you love them, in turn, through your experiences abroad. You learn to live each day, and understand that not all of them will be filled with sunshine. Some will be cloudy, and some will be dark, and rainy, with thunder and lightning. But the thing is, when those sunny days do arise, when the storm finally ends, and the buildings are bleached-pale and you can't touch your steering wheel anymore, you realize that these are the days you do everything for. These are the days that remind you what you've come here to do and what you've come here to accomplish. The beginning of exchange is filled with both kinds of days. The middle, near Christmas, has more than enough of the rainy ones. But once you emerge from the Skype calls back home and the non-eaten Turkey, and the pile of pine needles left on the ground, you come out into sun again. When you switch families, you see a new light. When you start to understand the language more and more, the sun just keeps getting hotter and brighter, and by the time you realize that happiness you've lead in this life, it's time to hop on that plane and fly back to a home that seems more like a dream that a life lived for 17 years.

I have grown up here. I know I have. I see it in the way I handle situations. The way I don't feel afraid anymore to ask people for directions. For help. I see it in the way I speak to my family back home. In the way I miss my friends. In all these ways, I see myself just as I was. But stronger, and more able to take what life throws at me.

I'm excited to go home. I am. I'm excited to get back to what I know and to share the me I've come to know with the people I left behind. But for now, living in this country of too much chocolate and one-cheek kisses, I'll spend my time well. Enjoying my sunny days, and realizing that the sun will come out, even on those days that are darkest. I'm facing the sun now, and the moon and it's evenings are fading behind me.

"And if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you'll learn things you never knew, you never knew."

May 18, 2014

Some people like to refer to an exchange year as “A life in year.” I get it now, I really do. I tried to imagine every single aspect of my time here, to the first time I met my host families, to even saying goodbye. I understand now, that obviously that was totally and completely impossible. Nothing prepares you for what you experience here. What you get out of life. Sure, there’s the language. You know that going in that you’ll most likely be speaking pretty fluently by the time you leave. What we’re unaware of though, is what it really feels like to finally be able to speak in a language other than your own. For those of you bi-lingual by birth speakers, it’s going to be a little harder to understand what I’m saying here. But really, for me, I’ve only ever spoken English. I dabbled in some Latin in high school (big mistake, let me tell you), but that’s about it. With French though, I&rsqu o;ve flown past scraping the surface and have, in some ways, unintentionally dived in head first. I’ll explain it like a frozen lake, because obviously any good blog post needs deep (and punny) metaphors. When you first get here, you’re scraping the ice. And honestly, you’ll be scraping and Kristoff ice-harvesting it for a good 4-7 months. But after you finally break through the surface, well, you’ll be treading cold water for a while. But after that, when you’re body adjusts to the freazingly cold water (because let’s hope it does), you’re good. You may not be fluent, but is that what matters? For me, French didn’t come easily. I came with nothing but I’ll be leaving with enough knowledge of the language to say that I can speak it. And read it. And understand everything. I watched Mammia Mia! (the best movie to watch when you’re living in the country of rain and not musical Greek islands) and it was in French. Sure , I knew the movie before (and pretty well, let’s be honest), but being able to watch a movie in a different language is like rediscovering it all over again. Let’s just say my love of Disney movies has intensified to two languages. Libérée deliver, my people.

Anyways, I guess that’s my schpeal (we’ll pretend I spelled that correctly) on the language aspect. I guess I just really felt the need to write about it because it means so much to me. Having a gym coach come up to you while your sweately pedaling on your bike machine in the middle of a workout and asking you questions about how long you’ve been here, then hearing that you came with no French and can speak like this in 9 months… Well, I’ll just say that I think my bebe de francais has been born and is extremely healthy.

The other thing I’ll touch on is the friends. And frankly, the absolute most important part of exchange. Belgium, if you know anything of its exchange program, is KNOWN for how awesome a country for exchange it is. You want French? Okay, lots of options. You want friends from India, and Thailand, and Brazil, and Peru, and Canada, Finland, and hey, let’s face it, AMERICA? Well, then you want Belgium. Saying that I have friends all over the country is both true now and later. Right now, I’ve got my Florida amigos. All 82 of us, even those who have for some reason or another left their country early, well, we’re close. Thank you, Facebook. For now, anyways, my friends are there, all over the world. But when all us inbounds to Belgium return to our countries, well, I’ll have yet again friends around the world. And that is honestly such a beautiful, magical thing, that words cannot do justice. It’s magic in every sense of the word. Also, it make s vacations sooo much cheaper. ;)

In past blog posts (and I regret to say that there hasn’t been as many as I had hoped), I never really got into the things I had done. But now with my year in this magical country of chocolate and fries and waffles and rain, I think it’s alright to mention just a few of the things that I’ve gotten to experience. We’ll keep it to titles (aka Trip to Paris) to make things shorter, but just know, every one of the things on this list was the experience of a lifetime.

Maastricht and Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Paris, France

DISNEYLAND PARIS

Aachen, Germany

Luxembourg

The Czech Republic (THANKS YOU FOREVER MS. EMILY WEISS)

Antwerp, Bruges, Namur, Brussels, Bastogne, Knokke, LIEGE name it and I’ve been there BELGIUM.

And as I’m writing this list, I realize I cannot ever finish it for it is too vast, and I for one frankly, am too lazy. But yes, I’ve done a lot, and I’ve seen more here than in 17 years of my life back home. I have friends, Belgian, American, and everything in between. I have families that have given me memories that will last a lifetime. And I have the love for a country that just a year ago seemed like a dream I’d never realize. In the months leading up to your departure, and this goes to everyone, but mostly those who will be leaving and taking our spots next year, well, it really does seem like it will never come. But it will. And you’ll be there. And you’ll live like you’ve never lived before with your heart split between the places you can now call home. It’s a crazy ride, my friends, and it isn’t all sunny and rainbows (especially if you’re in a country known for its rain), but it will be, and I can promise, one of the most memorable and unforgettable times of your life.