The First Days of the Virtual Exchange
Monday was the first day of my exchange at San Silvestre, an all-girls school in Lima. I met the exchange coordinators and the two students who would be my exchange hosts. After we all introduced ourselves and talked about some of our interests, the San Silvestre girls went back to class and the four Athenian students going there on exchange got to choose what extracurricular classes we would take, as well as normal classes. I decided to take Volleyball, Model UN Training, and their drama elective. For academic classes, I was offered five, of which I chose to take three. I chose English, Math, and History of Peru, which was taught in Spanish.
Tuesday was a special day called a “Self Care Day.” There were some different activities, including dancing, smoothie making, a makeup session, face mask making, and nail painting. I chose to do the nail art session, during which I chatted with one of my hosts via the Zoom. I also joined a house meeting that was happening that day. San Silvestre has houses, which are kinda like advisories but way bigger with around 80 – 90 people each. The house leaders gave a presentation about some community service they were doing. I understood most of it, but they talked fast, so I didn’t have much time to process what they were saying. Afterwards, they hosted a couple Kahoots which I joined and had fun in.
Thursday morning, I found a text from the exchange communicator, Adriana, that something sad had happened and that she needed to talk with me and Cecilia as well as the other Athenian girls on exchange right away. Adriana gave us the news that one of my exchange host’s father had passed away the night before, and that she would be taking some time off from school. They also decided that Cecilia and I would not attend regular classes for the rest of the week to allow the community some time to process the loss. Fortunately, I was on a virtual exchange so her and her family didn’t have to actually, physically, take care of me. Otherwise it would have been a lot to handle. I still didn’t get to connect with my exchange hosts, Zoe and Natalia, as much because we wanted to give them their space and not be a burden. My family contacted a flower shop in Lima and sent flowers to my exchange host’s family. I wrote a message for them in Spanish. She told me later in a Zoom call that she had received them and that her family was thankful.
Early in the exchange I hadn’t been able to attend any academic classes yet; however, I did get to attend some extracurricular classes, including an MUN training meeting. MUN stands for Model United Nations. It is a mock meeting between countries to discuss issues many countries are confronting and potential solutions to them. I’d never been to an MUN meeting before, so it was a new experience for me. The students explained what it was and asked me if I wanted to join an unofficial practice MUN held within San Silvestre only. They had several different topics for the committees. I chose to join the one on abortion rights because you could do it with a partner. Victoria, another girl from Athenian going on exchange there, and I decided to be partners for the project. The country we were assigned was Gabon, a country in Africa, where abortion is only legal in some cases. We put together a position paper over the week and prepared for the meeting on Saturday, which would begin at 6:44 AM for us.
On Saturday morning we started with an opening ceremony, jumped right into reading the opening statements of some of the countries, and then moved on to moderated caucuses. It was kind of confusing at first. We didn’t know what to do or when we should speak, but eventually we did speak and got the hang of how the conference worked. After a few unmoderated caucuses, we formed blocs, which are groups of different countries that share similar ideas, and we began writing a working paper with the girls from other countries. After lunch, we finished writing resolution papers. When all the blocs had finished their resolution papers, we read them out and voted on them. The first vote failed, so we re-voted to see if one would pass and it still failed. We were all kind of disappointed, but it was still a really fun experience. It was one of the highlights of my exchange at San Silvestre. I got to talk and collaborate with a lot of people and had a great time.
Another elective I joined was a one-act play. I joined pretty late in the game, so the script was already completely developed and the girls were working on performing it. There wasn’t a role I could play so I didn’t get to do too much, but I helped where I could. They already had someone taking care of costumes, but they didn’t know what they were going to do for the set because using a Zoom virtual background just wasn’t working. Also, because of the way the play was translated over Zoom, each person had to have a different set in their own house. I thought it might help to find images on the internet they could either print and tape behind them or just use as a reference. They said the pictures helped and they each modeled their sets after them. I also helped timing the performance so they could know if they needed to slow it down or do it faster. Aside from timing and working on the set, I would occasionally get to fill in if someone was out, which I enjoyed. It was fun and think people are going to enjoy their play. I’m glad I was able to contribute.
The Pros and Cons of a Virtual Exchange
One of the difficulties the virtual exchange was the time difference. Peru is two hours ahead, so I would have to occasionally wake up early to go to classes and my whole day would be skewed very oddly. I got hungry at weird times, sometimes got really tired, or got a bad headache. You are very much living in two different time zones at once. Had my exchange been with a school with an even larger time difference, I’m sure it would have been more complicated. The reason this isn’t an issue on a real exchange is because even though you may be operating on a different time than the country you’re in, everyone else is not and eventually you get used to it. Doing an in-person exchange, you physically attend class and there’s not really a way to accidentally sleep through them. However, on a virtual exchange all you have to do is forget to set an alarm and you can easily miss your morning class, which I may have done one or twice.
I did not to get to see Peru because I wasn’t there to go places and my hosts were under lockdown so they couldn’t even give me a virtual tour. My exchange buddies and I did get to compare our countries though. We found out that they are pretty different, but there were a couple of similarities. We had multiple Zoom calls during the exchange in which we talked and played some games. It is very easy to stay in contact with my new friends from exchange because digital communication was already our only means of communication. Every possible kink has already been worked out.
I really enjoyed the whole experience of going on a virtual exchange and I think it is a good way for people to go on exchange. Part of the reason I jumped on the opportunity is because my family does not have much room to host an exchange student, but I always wanted to go because I thought it would be really cool. The virtual exchange, though some elements were more difficult or lost, was a lovely experience. Unfortunately for my family, I now want to go on an in-person exchange even more. I am going to be begging them to do it as soon as I get the opportunity again.