Kate Rojales

 Mexico

Hometown: Alpharetta, Georgia
School: Veritas Classical Schools
Sponsor District : District 6900
Sponsor Club: Alpharetta, Georgia
Host District: 4185
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Puebla Centro Histórico


My Bio


¡Hola! Me llamo Kate Rojales, y ¡estoy muy emocionada por estudiar y vivir en México en 2017-2018 con el programa de Intercambio de Junventud de Rotary! My name is Kate Rojales, and I am thrilled to study abroad in Mexico for the 2017-2018 year with the Rotary Youth Exchange Program! It is such an honor to be selected for this amazing opportunity. On my exchange journey, I am most excited about building meaningful, lifelong relationships with the people from Mexico and across the world because people give meaning to our lives. I love meeting diverse individuals and listening to their stories because I believe that through relationships, we can truly understand and appreciate new perspectives. I try to ask thoughtful questions, listen without judgement, and respond with compassion and empathy to create these connections. Here in the United States, I live with my mom, dad, and 14-year-old brother, Jason, in Alpharetta, Georgia. I am a senior at Veritas Classical Schools, and I also attend classes at Georgia State University. I have studied Spanish for 9 years with my dream of becoming a physician aiding Spanish-speaking populations. Outside of school, I love reading, playing the piano, and volunteering. I founded my own non-profit organization, Hope For Mail, which sends words of encouragement to families battling life-threatening childhood illness. I also volunteer as a weekly Sunday school teacher for elementary children, and I have served on mission trips to Guatemala and El Salvador. I cannot fully express how grateful I am for this opportunity to grow, experience life in a new culture, and build lifelong friendships. Thank you to the Rotary Club of Alpharetta, District 6900, Rotary Youth Exchange Florida, my host club and district, my host families, and countless volunteers for making this opportunity possible! ¡Hasta luego!

All the inbounds in my district

All the inbounds in my district

School friends!

School friends!

Meeting the District Governor

Meeting the District Governor

Rotary Club banner exchange

Rotary Club banner exchange

Una comida with the family!

Una comida with the family!

At a beautiful beach in Acapulco

At a beautiful beach in Acapulco

Atlanta, GA, USA, to Puebla, México!

Atlanta, GA, USA, to Puebla, México!

Acapulco with some fellow inbounds!

Acapulco with some fellow inbounds!

After volunteering with my school

After volunteering with my school

Serving with another exchange student!

Serving with another exchange student!

My host sister and me at a collection center

My host sister and me at a collection center

Unique souvenir!

Unique souvenir!

Central collection center

Central collection center

Volunteering at a collection center

Volunteering at a collection center

Neighborhood collection center

Neighborhood collection center

Volunteering with my school friends

Volunteering with my school friends

Health classmates!

Health classmates!

My sister and me

My sister and me

My friend and me at MUN

My friend and me at MUN

Puebla inbounds in front of the Pyramid of the Sun

Puebla inbounds in front of the Pyramid of the Sun

Me and my Rotary Counselor

Me and my Rotary Counselor

Exchange friends at Teotihuacán together

Exchange friends at Teotihuacán together

Me in front of the Pyramid of the Moon

Me in front of the Pyramid of the Moon

Me with a teacher and some classmates in front of our ofrenda (offering)

Me with a teacher and some classmates in front of our ofrenda (offering)

Step 1 of making hojaldras (special bread for Dia de los Muertos)

Step 1 of making hojaldras (special bread for Dia de los Muertos)

Everyone pitching in to help make hojaldras (special bread for Dia de los Muertos)

Everyone pitching in to help make hojaldras (special bread for Dia de los Muertos)

Hot-gluing individual beans onto the ofrenda (offering)

Hot-gluing individual beans onto the ofrenda (offering)

Our finished ofrenda (offering) for Dia de los Muertos

Our finished ofrenda (offering) for Dia de los Muertos

My host dad, my host sister, and me shaping hojaldras (special bread for Dia de los Muertos)

My host dad, my host sister, and me shaping hojaldras (special bread for Dia de los Muertos)

A parade on Dia de los Muertos

A parade on Dia de los Muertos

Finished hojaldras! (Special bread for Dia de los Muertos)

Finished hojaldras! (Special bread for Dia de los Muertos)

My best exchange friends from Germany, Poland, and Indonesia

My best exchange friends from Germany, Poland, and Indonesia

Birthday dinner with my host family

Birthday dinner with my host family

Speaking at my local Interact Club

Speaking at my local Interact Club

Boat ride with some fellow inbounds

Boat ride with some fellow inbounds

At a country fair with my friend from Indonesia

At a country fair with my friend from Indonesia

Going to the zoo

Going to the zoo

Birthday surprise at school!

Birthday surprise at school!

Speaking to future Mexican outbound students' parents

Speaking to future Mexican outbound students' parents

Christmas selfie with my first host family!

Christmas selfie with my first host family!

Best friends at school!

Best friends at school!

Me on top of my host family's lake house

Me on top of my host family's lake house

Friends from my Interact Club

Friends from my Interact Club

My cousins, sister, and I on Christmas Eve

My cousins, sister, and I on Christmas Eve

Best Interact Club ever!

Best Interact Club ever!

During rehearsal for my school play

During rehearsal for my school play

Lake Valsequillo

Lake Valsequillo

Singing with my friends at the posada

Singing with my friends at the posada

Villa Iluminada in a nearby town

Villa Iluminada in a nearby town

Hitting the piñata at the posada

Hitting the piñata at the posada

Christmas Eve with my host parents and grandparents

Christmas Eve with my host parents and grandparents

Letters to the reyes magos (3 Kings)

Letters to the reyes magos (3 Kings)

Ready for 3 Kings Day

Ready for 3 Kings Day

New Year's Eve with my host sister

New Year's Eve with my host sister

Christmas Eve mass

Christmas Eve mass

Me with my second host sisters!

Me with my second host sisters!

Our finished rosca!

Our finished rosca!

Making the rosca dough with some exchange student friends

Making the rosca dough with some exchange student friends

In the ER after falling out of the tree

In the ER after falling out of the tree

Hanging in a tree with my sister and cousin

Hanging in a tree with my sister and cousin

Journals: Kate-Mexico Blog 2017-18

  • Kate, Outbound to Mexico

    January 29, 2018

    I have to book my return flights within the next two weeks, and it is the first time I have truly considered the implications of the end of my exchange. I don’t want to leave, but I know that is not realistic, and I am excited for college and the next chapter of my life awaiting on the other side of the border. To go on exchange means to leave it at the end, and on a cognitive, rational level, I have always known this. But emotionally? I don’t think anyone really understands what that truly means until the time comes. I am just starting to wrap my head and heart around about who I am leaving behind. And to say that I am “going home” is true, but only half-true, because I am also leaving a home and families and best friends and a life, but this time, for forever, not for a year. My heart is already beginning to be ripped in two, between my family and mis familias, between my friends and mis amigos, between Atlanta and Puebla, and between my past, my present, and my future chapters of my life. So, I will continue enjoying every day to the fullest surrounded by people I have grown to love dearly.

    Today through social media and the Internet, we now can stay connected regardless of distance easier than ever before (like you right now, reading this blog, and thanks for reading by the way!). We can text, video call, share photos, and post status updates instantaneously. However, I believe that it is also so much easier to fall in the trap of comparing our own private lives with everyone else’s public ones and feeling discontentment. I see my friends on exchange around the world riding elephants, visiting the Eiffel Tower, and holding giant snakes-all the things shown in the promo photos and told by former exchange students. And at first glance, my exchange seems so ordinary and boring in comparison. I have traveled outside of my city only twice, both times during the first two months of my exchange. But then I remind myself why I came on exchange in the first place. I didn’t go on exchange to travel the world or to see the sights. I came on exchange to meet people, to build meaningful relationships that will hopefully last a lifetime. And I have done that. I am so fulfilled by these relationships, the everyday moments that are so easy to miss, by just being together. From an outsider’s point of view, my exchange may not seem the most exciting and adventurous, but for me, it is so incredibly rich because I am with people who I have grown to love and who love me back.

    But in order to truly connect with people, we need language. We don’t really think about it, but language is how we think and feel and process the world and communicate with other people. We understand ourselves, other people, and our reality with letters and words of a language. Without a common language, it is extremely difficult to build deep relationships. I arrived in México with decent language skills. I actually could communicate from the beginning with more than caveman and charades. I could express my basic needs, likes and dislikes, ask and answer simple questions, introduce myself, and more. Even so, it was so difficult to articulate my thoughts, feelings, and the subtleties they require. I felt trapped by my inability to express myself completely, and But asking where the bathroom is, ordering food, and shopping at Walmart are markedly different than being able to connect with people on a deeper, emotional level. It is also hard to be intentionally funny in another language and culture, but that’s a discussion for another day.

    However, language skills aren’t everything. Even among people fluent in the same language, relationships are not automatic; they require intentionality. For me, this means looking for ways and moments to connect, no matter how small they may seem, because relationships are built on consistently and intentionally engaging. It starts simply with not being on my phone constantly, but instead choosing to engage with my host family and friends. It means choosing to initiate conversations, ask thoughtful questions, and listen with my full attention. It means opening ourselves up and sharing what we truly think and feel, as well as allowing others to do the same. It means looking beyond ourselves and our own agenda to see the needs, hopes, and desires of the people around us. Sometimes (and even often) it can be awkward or uncomfortable in the beginning, but in the end the reward is so worth it.

    On Monday, January 22, the spring semester finally started after over 5 weeks of Christmas vacation. I was really disappointed because there was a change in salones (classmate groups), and I was separated from my closest friends. Although we still miss being in class together, now I have the opportunity to meet some new classmates. I am so happy to be back in school again and to hang out with my friends. And today, my classmates elected me subjefa (like vice-president) of my salon, and thankfully there is nothing political about the role! I feel very honored that they would even consider me for the role and very surprised as well. I mean, how many times does the exchange student get voted to be a class officer? But, then I remember that no one really considers me an exchange student; I am just part of the class and school, which truly is an amazing feeling.

    In other news, last week, I was climbing a tree with one of my host sisters, and I fell out and landed on my back. I was pretty sore for a few days. My host parents took me to the ER a few days after the fall just to double-check that I hadn’t seriously injured myself. The doctor ordered some X-rays (more for my collection!) and thankfully I didn’t break anything. I do have a couple weeks of physical therapy though. My mom says that all my poor host parents have been officially inducted into the Kate’s Parents Club because now my parents and all of my host parents have taken me to the ER or hospital (It’s not intentional! I promise!) I have also earned myself quite a few lectures from my host parents, natural parents, and other concerned individuals (you know who you are!) for being such a bonehead. So, no more tree climbing or any other sort of climbing for me, at least while I am still on exchange! ¡Nos vemos!

    Click HERE to read more about Kate and all her blogs

  • Kate, Outbound to Mexico

    As we enter 2018, I have now been on my Rotary Youth Exchange for over 5 months, and I changed host families on January 5 for the first time. Although I will miss my first host family, I am really excited for the opportunity to get to know my second host family. Now I live with a host mom, dad, and 2 younger twin sisters, and their other daughter is on exchange on France. I believe that every family is a different “microculture” of a society with a unique lifestyle, value system, and dynamic, and by changing host families, we can learn and experience more of a country’s culture. I did miss my family back in the U.S. over the holidays, but I loved spending it here with my host family and having a completely different experience.

    A good friend of mine from Interact invited me to experience a posada, a traditional Mexican celebration before Christmas with her family. While we were waiting for the extended family to arrive and for it to become dark, we played dominos and Jenga. When it was dark, we all took a candle and a copy of the song, and someone carried on a plate small statues of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. This commemorates the months before the birth of Jesus and Joseph and Mary’s journey to Nazareth. We walked in the street carrying our candles and singing this special song. Then, we divided into two groups: one inside the house symbolizing the innkeepers and one outside representing Mary and Joseph. We took turns singing the different parts, the innkeepers refusing to allow Mary and Joseph to enter, and Mary and Joseph asking for posada (also known as lodging). Eventually, we were allowed to enter, and the posada continued.

    Another critical part of the posada is the breaking of the piñata. We all took turns, in order from youngest to oldest, to be blindfolded and spun around. If it was not hard enough already, someone is moving the piñata from the end of the rope it is hung on too. While one person is trying to hit the piñata with the decorated palo (stick or pole), everyone else is singing this song, and once the song is over, that person’s turn is over. It was so much fun, and when the piñata finally broke, we all raced to pick up the fruit and candy that fell. I actually didn’t realize that the piñatas were stuffed, so for the first one, I was so surprised that I didn’t try to pick up the candy. Everyone else laughed at another one of my clueless exchange student moments because trust me, they happen! We also received aquilaldos (bags filled with peanuts and more candy).

    We all then warmed up inside, talked, and ate tacos de cochinita pibil (pork or chicken prepared a certain way originating from the Yucatán Peninsula) and drank ponche (punch very popular in México during the Christmas season). Ponche is a warm, sweet drink that contains sugarcane, apples, guayabas, tejocotes (type of hawthorn native to México), jamaicas, tamarinds, prunes, and cinnamon. I love ponche, and I am definitely going to miss it next Christmas! I am very grateful that this family so willingly opened their home and invited me to experience the beautiful tradition of the posada.

    For Christmas here in México, we celebrate more on Christmas Eve (December 24) than Christmas Day (the 25). I went with my host family to Catholic mass at 8 PM, and then we all went over to my grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner. In the United States, my extended family is very small and they live very far away, so this was the biggest Christmas dinner I ever had. From my host mom’s side, her parents and brother were there. And from my host dad’s side, his mother, his cousin, his brother and his family. We started eating dinner at around 11 PM, and we had a shrimp soup, more shrimp, spaghetti, turkey, pork, chilis stuffed with cheese, ayacotes (a type of bean), apple salad, and tortas (a type of bread). We also drank ponche and for dessert, some gelatins and buñuelos (a traditional Christmas treat). After we ate, we sat around the table talking until 2 AM. We then exchanged and opened gifts (this is definitely the earliest I have ever opened Christmas gifts!). We enjoyed each other’s company some more, and finally at 4 AM we left to go back home. Christmas Day was much more lowkey and relaxed as we slept in, trying to recover from the night before. My host family and I went for a comida (main meal here in México, eaten usually between 3-5 PM) at the great-grandmother’s house. My host family went to visit see some friends that night, so I was able to talk to my family in Atlanta on Skype. Yes, I did miss my family back in the United States and some of our traditions, but I loved spending Christmas with my host family and the extended family. Everyone, over the past 5 months, had really welcomed me with open arms and had accepted me like a member of the family, so it was a truly amazing and unforgettable Christmas.

    To celebrate New Year’s, I went with my host family to the house of my other grandparents for a late dinner with some of their friends as well. Similar to Christmas, we ate some more amazing food such as barbecue ribs, pork, bacalhau (a type of cod dish), pig’s feet, chilis stuffed with cheese, spaghetti, apple salad (which my sister and I made!), and tortas. At midnight, we ate 12 grapes along with the 12 bell rings at midnight while thinking of 12 wishes and resolutions for the new year, a very common New Year’s tradition here in México. Unlike Christmas, I couldn’t manage to stay awake for much longer, so I fell asleep on the couch around 12:45 am while everyone else continued celebrating the new year.

    Because I switched host families on January 5, I spent el Dia de los Reyes Magos (3 Kings’ Day) with my second host family. It is a holiday celebrated on January 6 and commemorates when the 3 wise men brought the gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense to baby Jesus. In preparation, the day before, children write letters to Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar asking for the toys they would like to receive. Then, it is very common to tie the letter to a balloon and set it free. So, my host mom’s sister and her family came over, and all of the kids (me included) wrote letters to the 3 kings and released the balloons together. That night, we all (my host parents too) set a shoe by the Christmas tree along with some brownies and milk. During the night, the reyes magos left gifts for us all. I think the reyes magos know me (and my big stomach) pretty well since they brought me peanut butter, my favorite cereal, cookies, and slippers.

    Another important part of the Dia de los Reyes Magos is the rosca de reyes (a special type of sweet bread). Families and/or close friends gather together to cut and eat the rosca together, but hidden in the rosca are various lmuñecos (little plastic representations of baby Jesus). Everyone must cut a piece, and everyone who finds a muñeco has to pay for the tamales for the celebration of the Dia de la Virgen de Candelaria (Day of the Virgin of Candelaria) on February 2. I was really happy because I was able to cut and eat rosca 3 times, once with my first host family, once with my second host family, and once with both host families and other family friends. Not once did I find a muñeco, so I got out of paying for any tamales when February comes around! I have loved experiencing new traditions during this holiday season on exchange with some of the people I have grown to love very dearly.

    Click HERE to read more about Kate and all her blogs

  • Kate, Outbound to Mexico

    December 26, 2017

    Congratulations to the next class of Rotary Youth Exchange future outbound candidates for the 2018-19 year! I remember a year ago myself being so full of excitement and anticipation. Take this time, excitement, and energy before exchange to STUDY YOUR LANGUAGE. You will hear it over and over and over again, but you will hear it from me too. In the months between your selection and your departure, it is easy to think “I will have time to study my language later.” Or “It doesn’t matter. I am going to learn it on exchange anyways.” But every little bit counts to make your exchange more meaningful, especially in the beginning. No former exchange student will tell you that they studied a language too much, and most of them probably regret not learning as much as they could of the language before their exchange. Language skills leads to trust with your host family, more freedom, friendships at school, an easier integration into your host community, and so much more. Language is the key to unlocking the true potential of your exchange. Enjoy your first Outbound Training weekend. It is a lot of information, but trust me, RYE Florida has excellent training that you may not fully appreciate until you are in your host country.

    I have now been on my Rotary Youth Exchange for over 4.5 months, and two weeks ago, I just finished my first semester of school. So after catching up on some much-needed sleep and celebrating Christmas, I have had some time to reflect about my first half of exchange and what I have learned.

    On exchange, I am definitely learning how to be more flexible and to trust that things will work out. My natural instinct is to plan and anticipate how things will go. In a culture when everything happens “ahorita” (English approximations: who knows when, whenever, or in a little bit), my tendencies to thoroughly plan have been forced to relax a little bit. “Plans” constantly change at the last minute, or sometimes the plan never existed at all. I usually feel like I am flying by the seat of my pants, which has really stretched my limits, forced me to adapt, and developed some flexibility. Although I have adapted to the Mexican culture and lifestyle, I still think I am a planner at heart though.

    I am learning how to stand up for myself in a respectful non-confrontational way. By nature, I try to avoid any sort of conversations that might cause personal conflict (I do love debating though). But, I have learned that sometimes these uncomfortable conversations are necessary in order to take care of my needs and protect myself. I have realized that there is a difference between being a complainer and healthily looking out for myself. It is not always easy, especially with the people we know and love, but I am so glad I have talked with my host family about certain things that have bothered me. We just talked it out and came to an agreement, and I am learning that it is not as scary as I once thought. The reality is that addressing things that affect us is a life skill because in order to truly have close relationships, I need to have the courage and integrity to communicate my feelings.

    One of the things I am learning on exchange is to just go for it, try new things, and be adventurous. My rule with new food is that I need to try at least one bite. I don’t always like it (like the time I tried taco de sesos or a cow brain taco), but I don’t know until I try, and I have found some new favorite foods here in México. In addition to trying new foods, I have also tried new activities like theater. On exchange, in my second language, I acted for the first time in the play at school for literature class (Bodas de Sangre by Federico García Lorca or Blood Weddings). Originally, I was working on adapting the original text, and then later, I became an actor. I really enjoyed the challenge of learning all my many, many lines and then trying to make them sound natural instead of recited. We rehearsed a lot, and it was amazing to see our progress from beginning (stumbling through the book and losing our place all the time) to the end (confidently and from memory). Sure, I messed up the pronunciation occasionally and was far from perfect, but I am so glad that I tried something new and went outside my comfort zone.

    On my exchange, I am not just getting to know México, this beautifully chaotic culture, and some amazing people; I am discovering a lot about myself too. One of the things I selfishly wanted from my exchange was the opportunity for me to learn who I truly am and what I believe in and value. Not just because this is how my parents are, not just because this is how the American culture is, not just because this is how my life is. Because on exchange, all that changes. I live in a completely different family and culture with a different routine, so I am just left with me. Sure, I am growing; my view on the world is expanding, and I have adapted to another way of life. But, my core self is almost the same here in Puebla as it was there in Atlanta. I am still nerdy, sarcastic, and crazy (in a good way*). I still love to learn and probably study too much. I still would call myself an idealistic realist. I still don’t emphasize appearances, and I still value meaningful relationships with real people and prioritize my integrity.

    I am learning how to live knowing each day is limited. Exchange is a normal life, but it is a unique life that I probably won’t experience again. When I boarded that plane in Atlanta, I put the life I had built there in the United States on pause for a year, but I will resume that life after exchange. But when I leave Puebla, I probably won’t be able to come back to my life here (unless I move back here, something that I would honestly consider). Yes, I will visit and keep in touch and remember, but that is not the same. And with every day that passes, that is one less day I have left of this beautifully real, normal, and yet extraordinary life with the people here that I love. When I first arrived, 11 months seemed like forever away, but now at almost the halfway point, I realize how little time 11 months is in a lifetime. I live painfully aware that every moment, every day, every season, and every life comes to an end and that our precious time is so very limited. I live knowing that it does matter how I spend my time and that I don’t want to have any regrets. So I live with a sense of urgency, a sense of intentionality, a sense of purpose. This doesn’t mean I live recklessly or go sky-diving, but I try, in my everyday life, to see past myself and to look for ways to build other people up, to remind them they matter. Because I firmly believe that in order to truly make a difference, I need invest in other people and in meaningful relationships. And this doesn’t end with exchange. I want to live this way, with purpose, for the rest of my life.

    Click HERE to read more about Kate and all her blogs

  • Kate, Outbound to Mexico

    November 26, 2017

    One question I was asked quite often before I went on exchange was, “So, what exactly will you be doing in México for a year?” That’s a great question... Sometimes even I wonder what crazy, beautiful adventure of a life did I apply for over a year ago? As I have touched on in other blog posts, I chose a normal life where I live with a host family and go to school; it’s not a vacation or endless days of partying. And I also agreed to leave my loved ones in the United States for a year and to the responsibility of serving as an ambassador of the United States.

    Since the beginning, I knew that exchange would mean I would have to leave my family and friends behind. I knew I would miss them; I knew that I would miss birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and all the days in between. And unfortunately, knowing in advance does not make it any easier in the moments when my heart is burdened by how much I miss them. For me, I did not cry at the airport when I said goodbye to my family. I was too excited and nervous and confident and overwhelmed by exchange to feel much else. But recently with the holidays, this homesickness has hit me hard, and I have had to wrestle with these feelings of missing my family.

    As much as I miss my loved ones back in the United States, I still have a choice whether I will wallow in my sadness and have a pity party or choose to engage in my life here with the people I care about here. We shouldn’t ignore our feelings and try to push them aside like they don’t matter, but we shouldn’t let these emotions consume us either, a balance I am trying to learn through exchange. We have a choice of whether or not to intentionally connect with other people and appreciate what we have. Thinking less about me and more about other people has helped me continue to push through these feelings of missing my family. I don’t want to let some homesickness, although real, cause me to miss part of exchange and moments with the people I love here.

    However, I still had an amazing birthday and a fun Thanksgiving. At school, my friends had surprised me with a (non-chocolate!) cake and had decorated the whiteboard with a bunch of sweet notes. They had also asked some of my favorite profes (teachers) to be there, and all their thoughtfulness really touched me. After school we went to eat and to watch Coco (which is a really great movie in my opinion, and I don’t typically like animated films). The next day, some of my exchange friends came over to my house, and it was a lot of fun to goof off, try to sing songs in Spanish, and play an epic version of Ninja on the roof. And on my actual birthday, my host family and some of my extended family took me to eat Japanese food and then we all watched Coco together. It was such a special birthday, and I know I will always have a family here in México.

    As expected, we do not celebrate Thanksgiving here in México, but on Black Friday, we had a small Friendsgiving in English class. Everyone brought food to share, so we enjoyed ham sandwiches, lemon and chili-flavored chips, rolls, flan, Jell-O, brownies, lemon pie, and soda. I was supposed to make lemon pie, but I messed up, and mine was more of a lemon pudding! The flavor was really good, but the texture was all liquidy. I also briefly talked (in English) about what we do for Thanksgiving as a family, why it is important to us, and some of the delicious typical Thanksgiving dishes. On the day before Thanksgiving at my Interact meeting, I was the speaker, and I talked about and showed photos of how we celebrate Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Christmas in my family and then in general in the United States. I was very proud of myself because I only had a day’s advance notice, and it was the first presentation I have winged in Spanish without any prior preparation or notes whatsoever!

    Speaking of Interact, one of my favorite activities every week are the meetings of the Club Interact de Puebla Centro Histórico (also known as the best Interact club ever!). Interact is like Rotary Club for high school students, a place for students interested in community service and exchange to hang out together. We meet every week in a local coffee shop for about 2 hours. Every meeting, we have an icebreaker and a brief reflection about a quote or something that has happened, and then we have the main speaker. Sometimes it is more serious such as the talk a Colombian Rotaract student (Rotary for college-age students) gave us about “Rotary as a Lifestyle” and sometimes it is more casual like the time we learned to draw or dance the bachata (I am still terrible at both by the way!). We have some protocol, but in general, it is very casual and more about building friendships and spending together. We also do service projects together, such as helping in the collection centers after the earthquakes, and we are planning some more community service for the upcoming year. Every week I look forward to Interact meetings because I know we will laugh and have a good time together.

    I have also had other opportunities to represent and share about my life in the United States in my role as an ambassador. A few weeks ago, my local Rotary district hosted a day of tests, interviews, and information sessions for the future Mexican outbound applicants. As inbounds, we made a country fair for the students and their families. Another student from the US and I set up a booth about the United States, and I really enjoyed answering their questions about exchange, showing photos of my family and the US, and giving out pins. (Future exchange student tip: before you leave, make a photo album of photos of you, your family, your city, and other parts of the US to share about your life.) That day, I also spoke to all of the parents as part of the small panel of inbound students about my experiences on exchange as well as helpful advice for them as future exchange student parents. During events such as country fairs, the role of an ambassador is more obvious, but as exchange students, we always represent more than just ourselves. People develop opinions about our countries and our cultures based on what we share, how we interact with them, and how we behave in our everyday lives too.

    In general, I also get asked lots of interesting and polarizing questions about the United States, some by people I just get introduced to. Some of the more common and memorable ones include:

    What do you think of México?

    How is México different than the United States?

    What do you think about Trump?

    What do most Americans think of México?

    How did that idiot get elected as your president?

    Do most Americans hate Mexicans?

    Why does the government allow people to own guns if there are massive gun shootings that kill lots of people?

    How is México better than the United States?

    This one is not a question, but it was very memorable: “Like a third of your country’s land isn’t even yours. It’s ours. You stole it from us.”

    Naturally in conversations with my host family, classmates, friends, and Rotarians, I get lots of questions about my daily life, traditions, differences between the US and México, but typically out of curiosity and without hostility. With polarizing questions and especially with strangers, I don’t state my own opinion, remain neutral, and calmly state general facts. I have found that this approach works really well because I don’t provoke arguments, and I also do not just agree automatically with whatever they said.

    Thank you so much for reading, and ¡hasta luego!

    Click HERE to read more about Kate and all her blogs

  • Kate, Outbound to Mexico

    Click HERE to read more about Kate and all her blogs

    November 5, 2017

    Exchange is both daily life and also the special opportunities to celebrate the unique cultural traditions of our host countries. This past week, I have experienced one of México’s most famous holidays: Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November 2!

    My grade at school entered in a city-wide competition designing a unique ofrenda (offering or altar). I loved the opportunity to participate in such an essential and characteristic part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Ofrendas are not to worship the dead, but they are set up to honor the memories of loved ones who have gone before us. The art students and teacher designed a very unique and creative ofrenda inspired by traditional ones. Instead of the traditional tiers of an ofrenda covered with a tablecloth, we took big boxes and painted them with canvas-colored paint and arranged them in different levels. We also didn’t use typical skulls and skeletons, instead we very patiently hot-glued individual black beans, pinto beans and popcorn kernels onto the boxes to create the skeleton and flower patterns. The designs on the skull were also meticulously arranged and glued beans, and the sign was very carefully hand-drawn and painted, and then on the border we glued more layers of (you guessed it!) seeds! All of the beans were a unique way to tie the different elements of our ofrenda together, and I didn’t see a single other ofrenda in the Casa de Cultura (Culture House) that used beans like we did.

    We then added the more traditional elements; on top of the boxes, we placed sugarcane, guayaba, mandarins, and candles. The orange and purple flowers in the ofrenda are cempasuchil (marigold) and terciopelo rojo (red cockscomb), very classical flowers used on the ofrendas. On the background, we used the typical papel picado (colorful tissue paper with cut-out shapes) and purple and orange tissue-paper flowers. On the ground, we laid down more layers of black and pinto beans, flowers, and candles, as well as hojaldras or pan de los muertos (a traditional bread for Día de los Muertos). Lastly, we placed photos and mementos of the former student of my school who passed away in an accident to whom we dedicated our ofrenda.

    Helping with the ofrenda was a lot of fun, and I loved the camaraderie as we laughed, joked around, and constantly burned our fingertips together by accidentally touching the hot glue. As a very non-artsy person, I really liked that I could still contribute because after all, I can use a glue gun with the best of them! It was amazing to watch the vision of the art teacher come alive, students and teachers collaborate so closely, and our ofrenda come together piece by piece. It definitely was an experience that I will never forget.

    On Sunday, I spent the day with my host dad’s extended family making hojaldras or pan de los muertos, a very traditional food for el Día de los Muertos. It is a type of circular semi-sweet bread with bone-shaped and tear-drop pieces on top to represent the circle of life and the tears of the living. We started with 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds) of flour, 72 eggs, 6 cans of condensed milk, and 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of butter as well as yeast, some sugar, and agua de azahar (orange blossom water) to make several batches. First, we took the flour and made a large ring and massaged the mountain of butter until it was very warm and workable. Then little by little we added the condensed milk as I mixed it with my hands with the butter. Next we mixed in the eggs and the egg yolks, the yeast, and the agua de azahar, routinely adding flour to thicken it up. Eventually, we incorporated all the flour into this massive ball of dough, so we started the very tiring and tedious, but ultimately rewarding kneading process. After kneading and kneading and kneading, we let the dough rest and rise for a few hours. After kneading, it was a lot of dough, but when we checked it a few hours later, it was like the dough had multiplied! We then measured out the dough and shaped the balls into traditional hojaldra shapes: circular rolls with bone-shaped pieces crossed on top, with a little ball in the very middle. We brushed some egg on top, sprinkled sugar and ajonjolí (sesame seeds), and then stuck them in the oven! I think we made over 70 hojaldras The smell of fresh baking bread quickly filled the kitchen, and I couldn’t wait to try my first hojaldra, especially after a day of working to make them. After my first bite as a carb addict, I have discovered that I love hojaldras, and I probably ate too many in the days that followed, but after all, I am only on exchange once! I was really grateful to my host family to be included in this family tradition and to learn how to make one of my favorite typical Mexican foods.

    On the actual Día de los Muertos, November 2, I had the day off from school, so my host family and I ate out, and then we went to el Centro (the Center) of Puebla. We waited to enter la Casa de Cultura (Cultura House) where I could see some other ofrendas, and I showed my host family the ofrenda that my school had put up. I was absolutely amazed by the grandeur and creativity of the other ofrendas we saw (although I may be partially biased to ours!). There were so many people in the Zocalo (main square) dressed up as catrinas with the classical white base makeup and then black or other colored accents. We then stayed to watch a parade of giant skeletons that were at least 10 feet (3 meters) tall that people had made. One person would have a pole strapped to their back that bore the majority of the skeleton’s weight, and the 2 other people carried poles that moved the skeleton’s arms. And there were dozens and dozens of them in this parade!

    I absolutely have loved celebrating Dia de los Muertos here in México, and I have fallen even more in love with this beautiful country, rich culture, and warm people. Thank you so much for reading, if you have any questions or comments, leave them in the comments or send me a private message, and I will do my best to reply. ¡Hasta luego!

  • Kate, Outbound to Mexico

    Click HERE to read more about Kate and all her blogs

    My family is right when people ask about me and they reply, “Kate graduated high school and moved to México.” I am not on a year-long vacation, tour, or mission trip. For me, exchange now feels like my life because moving and establishing a new normal is exactly what I have done. I came to a new place with my suitcases, hopes, and determination, and now I have found another home by building meaningful relationships with my host family and friends. I don’t feel like an exchange student, instead I feel like I have always lived here in Puebla because of how natural and normal my life feels here.

    So after a pretty hectic September with the earthquakes and being sick, my life has finally gotten back to normal. On October 1, some of the Rotarians in my city planned a day trip for the exchange students and host families to Teotihuacán or “City of the Gods”, an ancient Mesoamerican city, that dates back to 100 B.C. Teotihuacán is a historically, culturally, and architecturally significant site in the Valley of México, known especially for its 2 enormous pyramids, dozens of smaller ones, and the remains of a once-thriving city. La Píramide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) is 233.5 feet high, one of the largest pyramids in Mesoamerica, and the 7th tallest in the world. When I stood in the shadow of this massive stone structure, I was simply awestruck by the magnificence of this temple and how it has endured for almost 2000 years and counting. I felt so small in comparison, and it caused me to revisit the question of the kind of legacy I want to leave behind: on exchange and with the rest of my life. Unfortunately I did not climb to the top of the Píramide del Sol because I ran 0.75 miles one way due to an unsettled stomach to use the restroom and then had to walk back. (So, tip for all people visiting a national park, outdoor monument, and similar places: use the restroom when you see one because you don’t know how far away the next one is!) After the tour of Teotihuacán, we all went to a restaurant to eat, talk, and hang out together before beginning the 2 hour bus ride back to Puebla. I really enjoyed learning more about the rich history of México while spending time and making memories with some of my exchange friends and their host families.

    As much fun as visiting Teotihuacán was, I realized for myself that the occasional trips with the other inbound students are not what gives my exchange its beautiful meaning. It is staying up too late at night talking with my host sister, who is more than just a host sister, but my sister forever. It is joking around with my school friends during breaks every day. It is the comida (biggest meal of the day) with my host dad’s extended family every Thursday. It is going to Costco with my host grandmother because she knows I miss American food or to the bakery with my other host grandmother because she knows I love bread. It is my host mom making my favorite foods when I was sick. It is my host dad driving me to school every day at 6:30 AM without complaint. These “little moments” and a million more remind me everyday why I love my life here in México. Because just like back in Atlanta, it is spending time with the people I love and choosing to see the blessings that bring me joy.

    Even though I am on exchange in a foreign country, I am still a student, so I spend the majority of my waking hours at school or working on homework. After 2 months, I have already fully integrated into my school. For me, this is more than just being welcomed, but I have become a part of my school community and am never treated as the “exchange student,” which can be a good and a bad thing, depending on the situation! I take it as a compliment that the my classmates and the profes (teachers) think my Spanish can handle being held to the same grading and participation standards as everyone else. Occasionally, especially when I am really tired, I think it would be nice not to do the homework or study for the tests, but I remind myself that me meeting the expectations of a normal student is partly the reason why I am a “normal” student. One thing I love about my classes here in México is the variety of classwork and projects we do, something that I did not have in my high school experience in the United States. Also, 90% of the assignments are with a partner or in a group whereas practically all of my schoolwork in the United States was individual.

    Some of my more memorable assignments include:

    Drawing all the bones of the hand on my hand for Human Anatomy

    Building a three-dimensional cone and then cutting it to demonstrate the 4 conic curves for Calculus

    Acting and improvisation exercises in Literature

    Reading a 23-page essay (in Spanish!) about St. Thomas and his view of the relationship between faith and reason and then creating a visual map for Theory of Knowledge

    Designing a poster to deter teen pregnancies for Marketing

    Building a scale model of all bones of the human thorax (vertebrates, ribs, and sternum) out of paper maché for Human Anatomy

    Creating lots of PowerPoint presentations, writing some essays, and participating in a handful of debates

    Outside of classes, I joined my school’s Model United Nations (MUN) team, and we had our first conference on October 5-7, 2017. The week before the conference was hectic as I tried to learn the very specific rules of protocol, researched my assigned country and the issues as in-depth as possible, and wrote 2 position papers. I represented the Arab Republic of Egypt in Security Council where we discussed, debated, and formulated potential resolutions to the issue of weapons development and its effects on international security for 8-12 hours for 3 days. Talk about international...the exchange student from the United States living in México who everyone thinks is from China or Japan represented Egypt! I loved the experience, all the discussion and debating and sharing of ideas as we worked towards a goal of world peace from such different perspectives.

    It was at the MUN Conference where I realized how far my Spanish has come in just 2 short months. MUN was held in English, and I constantly found Spanish coming to my mind first and I would have to switch to English. I now think first in Spanish (far from perfect Spanish, but it is definitely not English!) and automatically respond in Spanish. When I hear Spanish, I don’t translate into English; I simply understand. I still get confused every day and have to ask for clarification quite often, but that is a good thing. Because every time I ask and am not afraid to admit that I am lost, I learn something and improve instead of remaining in the dark (I also have very patient friends and host family!)

    If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, leave them in the comments or send me a private message, and I will do my best to reply. Thank you for reading, and ¡hasta luego!

  • Kate, Outbound to Mexico

    Click HERE to read more about Kate and all her blogs

    September 27, 2017

    Hola de Puebla, México! I have now been on my Rotary Youth Exchange here in México for almost two months, and my last month has been quite interesting to say the least. Living as an exchange student is experiencing life in a year with both ups and downs. For any future exchange students, I think it’s important to go into exchange with realistic expectations. I’ve already shared some of the positives that I’ve experienced, so here I am going to also share a few unusual challenges that I have faced. These difficulties are not easy, but they are ultimately what can make us stronger and more resilient.

    I experienced my first earthquake on Friday, September 8 just after midnight. An 8.2 earthquake had registered off México’s southern coast, the most powerful earthquake to hit México in a century. I was writing my first journal when I suddenly felt my desk and chair shaking. I hollered, “¿Qué pasa?” (What is happening?) to my host mom, and she told me to come downstairs. When I stood up, the floor was swaying underneath my feet, but I ran downstairs, and my host mom and I went to go stand outside. I was frightened but the earthquake was over fairly quickly. School was canceled the next day in all of Puebla as well as in México City and 10 other states, so the foundations could be double-checked. My host family and I are okay; our house was not damaged, and Puebla was not very affected as a city. The southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca suffered more damage, and tragically dozens were killed by the earthquake.

    I have asthma, and just like back in Atlanta, if I get sick, my asthma flares up. For a few days, I had a cold and had been using the medicines I had brought with me from home. Unfortunately I got worse and needed to go to the emergency room on Sunday (September 10), just two days after the first earthquake. I was expecting that I would get a breathing treatment in the ER and be sent home. To be on the safe side, the doctor decided to keep me for 24 hours for observation and so I could receive stronger IV medicines. On the day I was admitted, I was very proud that I could give my fairly long and complex medical history completely in Spanish since I had learned the Spanish words before exchange. (Tip: If you have allergies, dietary restrictions, religious constraints, or medical conditions, learn how to explain them briefly in your target language before you leave.) My 24 hour observation turned into a 4 days and 3 nights hospital stay. As much I knew that was the probably the wise thing, I was still frustrated from being sick and in the hospital. But, I was still grateful for the quality of care that I was receiving. I was in a private room on the pediatric wing of a very modern hospital under the direct care of a fantastic pulmonologist and attentive nurses the whole time. My host family also took amazing care of me too. I was not a huge fan of the hospital food, so my host family brought me a pepperoni pizza, cereal, and my favorite cookies. My host mom stayed overnight with me even though the little couch was so uncomfortable, I coughed all night, and the machines beeped constantly, just because she didn't want me to be alone. I felt terrible for putting my host family through this experience.

    Being in a foreign country, sick, and in the hospital were probably some of the most difficult weeks of my life. Missing your family is a normal part of your exchange, and never did I want my family with me more than those days in the hospital. During the other times I have been hospitalized back in Atlanta, I didn't do anything but sleep and try to get better. I could be weak while Mom and Dad managed everything. But this time, I had to be the director. I had to talk with the doctor and nurses about my asthma in Spanish, try to get the necessary papers to submit to insurance, update my family back home, and in the end, pay the bill (Side note: my entire hospital and doctor bill only came to approximately $1800 USD!). I don't know how I kept functioning except for the fact that I had to, so I did. This hospitalization showed me that I am stronger than I thought and also reminded me that it is okay to ask for help and rely on others. I also feel like my Spanish improved because I didn't have any other option.

    On Wednesday (September 13), I was released from the hospital, but the doctor told me that I could not leave the house for the week so my lungs could continue healing. I was disappointed, but I recognized that it was (again) the wise thing to do, and I was still very grateful to be leaving the hospital. When I went to the pharmacy to find the medicines I needed, the pharmacist told me that one of my medications was administered by needle injection at home. I was a little freaked out (okay, maybe more than a little), but my host grandmother did a great job both times with the injections. During my four days of house arrest, I slept, worked on my blog, and watched lots of Netflix. It felt so good to be home in my own bed, with better food and Wifi, and the freedom to walk around without the IV pole. Friday, September 15 is when we celebrate Mexican Independence, but I was still under doctor’s orders to remain at home. I was really disappointed to miss the party at school and the festivities downtown, but I guess that just means I have to come back one day to México to celebrate!

    I experienced my second earthquake at about 1:00 PM Central Time, Tuesday, September 19 (the anniversary of the terrible 1985 earthquake that devastated México City). This earthquake had a magnitude of 7.1, and the epicenter was in the town of Raboso, Puebla, about 35 miles from my city of Puebla. This earthquake felt much stronger than the one on September 8, and as soon as I felt the shaking, I immediately ran downstairs and out into the backyard. I was scared and very worried about my host family who were not home with me at the time. Cell phone service went down for a while, and since it happened in early afternoon, people were at school and work. People could not reach their family members; traffic lights stopped working, so the streets were jammed with traffic. My host family came made it home a little while later, and thankfully we are all safe. In our house, only a couple of photo frames fell off the wall and broke. In the cities of Puebla and Cholula, the damage was worse than the earthquake on September 8th, as several older buildings were heavily damaged, and several church steeples fell. The earthquake affected México City more as whole buildings collapsed and tragically more than 300 lives were lost, and there are still people missing.

    After an earthquake, government inspectors have to survey building foundations for structural integrity. School was canceled again for all of Puebla and México City from Wednesday to Friday, to check the schools and so students could help with the relief efforts. On Wednesday, the day after the earthquake, my host mom and I went to a makeshift collection center to donate supplies and volunteer for a while. Dozens of people were working together around a small truck and a couple of folding tables while more volunteers unloaded the endless stream of cars full of donations. We sorted the contributions and prepared bags of the different supplies ready to be handed out to families in need. I loved seeing how ordinary people were organizing relief efforts and how the community was rallying together to aid affected communities.

    On Thursday morning, my friends and I met at school, which also was a collection center, to volunteer together. We brought donations, as did so many other students, and together, we had filled a whole room with bags of clothes, nonperishable foods, and other necessities. We sorted, counted, and then re-boxed the donations to take to a central collection center at one of Puebla’s convention centers. Next, some other students, teachers, and I went to drop off the supplies and serve some more. When we arrived, I could not believe my eyes. Hundreds of people stood in a line to form a human chain that stretched from the road, across the plaza, inside the building, and all the way to the back of this huge room. Cars would pull up to the curb, and volunteers would unload them. The human chain then passed every donation, from cases of water to packages of medicine, down the chain until it reached the end. We first served by processing donated boxes of cookies, counting cookies and then marking the boxes for distribution. We then helped break down pallets of rice, lentils, and beans, re-grouping and bagging 10 individual-sized bags. Lastly, we grouped cases of diapers and bagged them together to be delivered to families in need. We left a few hours later, and I was so grateful for the opportunity to help in any small way I could with some amazing people.

    The sheer volume of donations and volunteers working together at this collection center absolutely amazed me. It was like an instant Costco warehouse of donations. There were rows and rows of cases of water stacked at least 5 feet high, and the piles of sorted clothing formed a sea of small hills. While hundreds of volunteers processed the donations, other people walked around, handing out donated waters, fruit, and tortas (very similar to a sandwich) to us volunteers. It was so incredible to witness people of all backgrounds and ages uniting to serve our community. High school students volunteering with their teachers. College students working alongside business professionals. Young children serving with their parents. We all had a common goal, which was to bring aid to those most affected by the earthquake. And together, as a community and country, we accomplished so much. Relief efforts were mobilized immediately, and supplies were delivered to those in need in less than 24 hours.

    On Friday, some of us Rotary Youth Exchange students, our host families, and local Rotarians worked together to unload a small truck that Rotarians from another area had sent full of donations. We formed a human chain and quickly sorted the cases of water and bags of supplies. When we finished, my friends from Germany and Indonesia, our host families, and I tried to go serve somewhere else, but in some cases, collection sites already had too many volunteers and were turning people away. What an amazing “problem” to have. We were able to help load a truck at a local university before heading home, my arms tired, but my heart full. Despite such a tragic natural disaster, I was moved to see an entire country working together to help our communities recover.

    I hope this blog post didn’t freak you out, but I wanted to show that life happens, no matter where you are. And you persevere and do what you need to do. In spite of 2 major earthquakes and a hospitalization, I have never wished I could return to the United States and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. I absolutely love my life here in Mexico and the people I have grown to love. I knew that there would be ups and downs during my exchange, and for me, the positives far outweigh the negative. We have the choice to see the blessings in every experience and challenge. Although, it would be okay (for me, my host family, and my family in the U.S.!) if there are no more illnesses or natural disasters for the remainder of my exchange. Thank you for reading, and ¡hasta luego!

  • Kate, Outbound to Mexico

    Click HERE to read more about Kate and all her blogs

    ¡Hola de Puebla, México! I have now been on my Rotary Youth Exchange here in México for over one month, and it has finally sunk in that exchange is not a dream, but a reality for me. Although it was tough saying goodbye to my family, I thankfully had an uneventful travel day where everything went smoothly and according to plan—no delays, no lost bags, and no missed connections. On August 1, I flew from Atlanta to Monterrey, had a 2.5 hour layover, and then flew from Monterrey directly to Puebla. While deplaning in Monterrey, a Rotex (past Rotary Youth Exchange student) found me because of my Rotary blazer and stayed with me until baggage claim in Puebla, which was so kind of her. I flew into Puebla at around 8 PM where my host parents and host sisters (Renata and Paula) were waiting for me with open arms and a bouquet of balloons. I ate dinner with my host family in a restaurant and when we got home, I collapsed into bed from exhaustion.

    In my first two weeks, I have walked around some of the Centro Histórico, gone to a coffee convention, and visited the Museo Amparo (an art museum) and the Museo Internacional del Barroco (International Baroque Museum). My host dad also gave me a tour of where he works: one of the most popular radio stations in Puebla! I even spoke on air briefly!

    After enjoying a relaxing 2 weeks here in Puebla, I started school! I absolutely love my prepa (high school) here in México. My classmates are so nice and welcoming, and the profes (teachers) are very friendly and helpful. Here in México, we have 3 years of prepa (high school), and I am in the fifth semester or the final year. I am also really enjoying all of my classes, which is good because I have nine. Most of my classes are classes pretty typical to what students take in the United States, with the exception of Ciencias y Saberes, which is a very interesting class about the theory of knowledge. I also chose medicine as my academic focus, so I take Human Anatomy, Physiology, and Bioethics. Because we have so many subjects, our class schedule is different every day of the week. But everyday, our first class starts at 7:00 AM sharp, and we finish at 2:00 PM. My host dad and I leave at 6:30 AM every day which is just a little early for me, but I am adjusting, an d I really appreciate my host dad’s willingness to take me to school every day.

    Even though all my classes are in Spanish (except English!) I pretty much understand everything in my classes, so the teachers treat me like a normal student. Being a “normal” student does include doing homework, but it also means I have the opportunity to experience more of a typical life here instead of constantly being treated differently as “the exchange student.” The style of school is very collaborative, so I get to participate in all of the group work and group projects. We do almost all classwork in pairs or groups as well, which has allowed me to interact with lots of different students in my salón (group). We always stay with the same classmates in all of our classes except our electives and English, which means we get to know each other pretty well throughout the course of the semester in all of our classes. I absolutely love my classmates in my salón. They have welcomed me so warmly, and I am so excited to spend the school year with them.

    Part of Rotary Youth Exchange includes the opportunity to learn and experience Rotary International in another country. I have attended two Rotary meetings of the Club Rotario de Puebla Centro Histórico. I was proud to represent my sponsor club, the Rotary Club of Alpharetta, as I exchanged Rotary Club banners with my host club. The Club Rotario de Puebla Centro Histórico is hosting 6 other inbound students, coming from Indonesia, Thailand, Germany, France, and 2 others from the U.S.

    This past weekend, my host Rotary district held our inbound orientation, and it was amazing. I went to Acapulco, a beautiful beach on the Pacific coast, with over 100 other Rotary Youth Exchange students from 22 different countries from around the world. It was such a fun weekend to talk with the other inbounds. We had a talent show; we toured the city of Acapulco; we watched these crazy brave divers jump from cliffs; we had dance parties every night; we traded pins and pins and pins. My friend from Australia and I were also interviewed by the local TV station (in Spanish!) about what we thought of Acapulco as exchange students, which was so exciting for me since I have never been on TV before! The District Governor also came to our orientation, and there was a pretty formal dinner one night. (Word of advice for future exchange students: always bring a decent outfit with you on trips, because you never know if you might need one...) We staged a flag parade, and I was very hono red to be the one chosen to represent the United States. But without question, the best part of inbound orientation was talking to the other exchange students. We shared and learned so much about the represented cultures, and there is something about being fellow exchange students that can instantly create connections. I know I made some lifelong friends that weekend, and I cannot wait to see them again in November for one of our Rotary trips.

    I am absolutely in love with México. Even in just my first month, I have experienced how México is not sombreros, tequila, and drug trafficking. After barely scratching the surface, I see a beautiful country with full of warm, welcoming, hard-working people, a unique culture, and rich history. Puebla is so fascinating because of the combination of historic architecture and modern conveniences, with a cathedral and a Costco only a few kilometers apart. Here, we greet and say goodbye by hugging and kissing on the cheek. Even as a foreigner, everyone greets me this way. Here, meals are more than times to sustain our bodies by feeding them. Meals are a time to relax, talk with family and friends, and enjoy each other’s company. I have already shared countless wonderful meals with the extended family, who have warmly welcomed me into the family with open arms. I have already fallen in love with my host family and the emphasis on family here in México. Yesterday my host parents told me that I am not just estadounidense (United States American), but that I am Mexican too, which just fills up my heart with love. They are my family for forever, not just temporary hosts.

    Despite having studied Spanish for 9 years, I just felt so overwhelmed in my first week. I could barely keep up with the conversations and most of the time just heard words, not able to process the meanings fast enough. I constantly was translating from Spanish to English, which I could only do if someone spoke slowly and clearly. It was so frustrating not to be able to communicate or understand everything automatically without thinking. My brain was always tired from trying to understand everything in a foreign language, and I have to pay 100% of my attention to understanding someone. I constantly asked (and still do) my host family and classmates “¿Qué es ésto?” (“What is this?”) or constantly look up words on my phone in order to build vocabulary. But now, after 5 weeks, my brain has finally switched from English to Spanish. I understand almost everything said to me without translating in my head, and although my Spanish is not p erfect, I can now communicate what I think and feel. So many tell me, “Your Spanish is so good! When did you get here?” and one of my friends at school told me that she forgets that I am not fluent in Spanish. I actually was reprimanded in English class for responding in Spanish, and now it is harder to text in English. But this is not luck. This is from years of hard work with an amazing teacher. So to all future exchange students: study your language as hard as you can before you leave. In the months between your selection and your departure, it is easy to think “I will have time to study my language later.” Or “It doesn’t matter. I am going to learn it on exchange anyways.” But every little bit counts to make your exchange more meaningful, especially in the beginning. No Rotex will tell you that they studied a language too much, and most of them probably regret not learning as much as they could of the language before their exc hange. Language skills leads to trust with your host family, more freedom, friendships at school, an easier integration into your host community, and so much more.

    These things are all so exciting and new now, but exchange is not a trip or a vacation; it is life. Exchange is life with ups and downs, good days and bad days. Exchange is definitely a different life than the one I left behind in Georgia, but it is still life, not all parties and excursions. We go grocery shopping, and I also help do the laundry and wash the dishes. I had to say goodbye to my host sister Renata as she embarked on her own exchange, which was sad and reminded me of my family that I left behind in the United States. Even though I have only been on exchange for five weeks, I feel so integrated with my host family, my school, and daily life here that it feels like this could have been my life forever. There are definitely moments where I miss my family and friends back in the US (and I might possibly miss hometown Chick-Fil-A a little!), but I think that these pangs are normal. They are definitely overshadowed though by a love that grows every day for the people, cult ure, and country that I am coming to know as México.

    It has been such an honor to serve as an ambassador on exchange, trying to build goodwill and friendship between different parts of the world. When we go on exchange, we represent so much more than just ourselves. We represent our communities, our sponsor Rotary clubs and districts, and our countries. I think it is important to realize that people will develop opinions about our countries and our cultures based on what we share, how we interact with them, and how we behave. I was chosen to be an ambassador of the United States in México during a particularly turbulent time in U.S.-México political relations. And I do not just want to confirm the negative stereotypes portrayed by Hollywood and the news media, but I want to leave people with a real impression of my country. A United States that has conscientious, informed, and engaged students. A country that is full of compassionate people who come together to support those in need. A richly diverse nation that h as many different ethnicities, religions, and belief systems.

    But as much as I came to represent, I came first to understand. I am here on exchange to fully integrate myself in my host family, school, and community and to learn the Mexican culture and their ways of life. This is how we truly break the stereotypes and misconceptions of our countries, by building strong relationships and humbling ourselves. Then, we have the opportunity to have deep conversations and represent our culture in a more personal, meaningful way. I recently was talking with two friends, inbounds from two different continents. Our conversation moved from casual chit chat to a serious discussion about our religious beliefs. It struck me how powerful it was that a Christian, Muslim, and Atheist could have such a open-minded conversation while coming from such “opposite” perspectives. But it was because we all approached the discussion with tolerance and respect for each other’s beliefs. I realized that our different beliefs do not have to divide us, but tolerance for different perspectives can help us unite if we first seek to understand.

    Thank you so much, Rotary, for giving me this amazing opportunity, and thank you for reading.

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