Cecilia Bersamin Reflects on her Time in Colombia

Looking back, the first few weeks of my new life in Bogotá are blurry. I remember arriving in the city, excited by the bustle of life. I remember sampling ten different colorful fruits on my first night. I remember driving 13 hours to the beautiful coffee region–the part of Colombia that Encanto was based on. A week into my exchange I came down with a horrible sickness. Eventually I went to the ER, and it turns out I had a bad case of Covid. So began my quarantine. For another week I was stuck in my room, with a family of strangers, in a rural coffee plantation almost 4,000 miles from home. A bit of a rocky start to my exchange. 

This gave me time to think and ponder what I had experienced the previous two-and-a-half weeks. Even though I hadn’t been there for long, hadn’t even been to school, I was already coming across challenges. The language barrier was difficult to adjust to, but each day I was feeling more and more comfortable understanding and talking in Spanish. It was definitely weird having a maid, something I had never experienced before. But I became friends with the maid and her five-year-old granddaughter. 

While Ana, my exchange sister, did work to keep up with her school, I went on walks around El Rosario, the family’s “finca.” It was beautiful. The flora and fauna in Colombia are hard to imagine coming from California, the land of golden rolling hills. In the coffee region everything is green, sprinkled with a rainbow of flowers of all shapes and sizes. There are loud colorful birds darting between the trees at all times of the day. Yes, there are bugs everywhere. (Pro tip: never leave your light on when your door is open.) And the house! Imagine La Casita straight out of Encanto: the shingled roof, big open rooms, plant baskets everywhere, even a courtyard in the middle. 

We finally left and I was over the virus. I hardly remember my first day of school, it was so overwhelming. So much Spanish, a lot of introductions, and I only remembered Ana’s name. What stood out was that everyone took the time to introduce themselves, ask about my time so far in Colombia, and about my life in California. I could already tell I would have a fun time at the Anglo. 

The last three weeks were the most memorable, amazing experience in my life. I looked forward to every day at school. I loved talking to people about their lives in Colombia and their values. I sought out every bit of culture and lifestyle there was, intrigued by the new and different. I felt the sense of unity that the Anglo had, something I hadn’t felt in the same way at Athenian. I discovered new things about myself. 

The soccer games might have been the most fun. We would take the bus, start playing, and then, of course, it would start pouring rain. We were shivering and splashing on the field all with smiles on our faces. The school team was probably the best team I have ever played on. Their skills were on a whole other level, I think because they were much more dedicated to the game. I became a better soccer player in just the few games that I played in. 

Then there were the parties: the music, the dancing, the food. It was so much fun. Everyone was so happy and energetic and wanted to talk to you. Strangers would come up to me and teach me how to dance like a Colombian. 

On my flight home I realized I would never have another experience like this again. I could come back to Colombia, but it wouldn’t be the same. I was so new to the culture, so fully immersed. I was happy dancing, sad when I missed my family, scared when I went to the ER, nervous to play in the soccer games. It was such a complete trip. I learned about myself, a new culture, new people–and I can’t wait to go back to Colombia.

Cecilia Bersamin is in Colombia

cecilia-bersaminI have now been in Colombia for one week. My arrival went very smoothly, and my first few days were pretty low key. We rested. I saw some of the views in the city. We went to the spa. It was very interesting to be so far from everything at home. I wasn’t thinking about school, about the people I usually think about. It was entirely new. It was a nice change of scenery and opened my eyes to a whole new world to enjoy. 

There have been some differences that have been tricky adjusting to in the last few days. It is very strange having a maid do everything for me, an experience I have never had. It almost makes me feel guilty, although I know she is just doing her job. It has also been tricky finding the motivation to keep up with the various things I have to do/organize for school back home. 

image3Another difference is the language. While I am trying to speak and understand as much Spanish as possible, it makes communication difficult when I only know a small portion of the vocabulary. When we speak in English, the conversations flow differently here. It is less of relating to what the other person is saying and sharing the conversation, and more of taking turns speaking about various things. So, it has been harder for me to feel connected. 

On the other hand, we are in the most beautiful place in the world. There are so many birds singing so many different things at once, perched on so many colors of flowers and shapes of leaves. I haven’t started school yet and we are on vacation in the coffee region where my exchange family has a home. I feel spoiled here with access to a pool, delicious food, and not busy. It really is paradise. 

I am excited to start school and meet more people. So far I have only met a few people. I made friends with Ana’s (my exchange sister) cousin, and the maid’s granddaughter, a five-year-old. I can’t wait to meet all the people at school, and especially to play soccer with them. I have missed competition and games, as my exchange family doesn’t partake in it much. 

While there is so much to love here, I see why people get homesick. At first, I thought I would never be homesick; however, I do miss my home a bit.

I can’t wait to tell everyone about my trip when I am back!

Aradhya Aggarwal’s Virtual Exchange at Athenian

aradhya-jpg

At first, the idea of a virtual exchange seemed unsettling and futile. How was I supposed to settle into a school’s system “virtually”? Even though Zoom was a far cry from an in-person exchange, there was a lot I could take away from this experience.

I was introduced to Jack, my exchange partner. Even though I like to keep all my stereotypes aside, it was difficult for me to believe that a Chinese American was not a math stud! Regardless, I realized that Jack is an amazing person. I had a great time connecting with him over Zoom calls, watching movies, and discussing our college plans (in the States).

As a virtual exchange student, the twelve-and-half-hour time difference between India and California was the biggest issue. Most of my meetings were either late in the night or early in the morning. However, the Athenian Exchange team was really helpful and they shifted my classes to the time slots that suited my schedule.

While my school and Athenian shared the same liberal and outgoing culture and set of traditions that almost all boardings do–such as calling teachers by their first names–Athenian was unorthodox about how they conducted their classes and meetings. Athenian created a comfortable environment for each individual to speak freely without having the concern of being politically correct or being confined by the set of classroom rules. I really appreciated that.

Additionally, I also got to connect with Mark Lukach, a humanities teacher at Athenian. Mark is helping me with my research even after my exchange is over! After I saw Mark’s inspirational TED talk, I never thought that I would have been able to actually meet him (virtually)!

I thank the Athenian team for helping me make the best out of this experience. To fill my (in-person) void, I look forward to visiting Athenian when I come to California.

Micaela Torres’ Exchange Experiernce

MicaelaMy name is Micaela Torres and I attend Markham College in Lima, Peru. This exchange was a great opportunity to get to know new people around the world and to see how other schools work and have adapted to the circumstances. Personally, I felt really welcomed by the students, teachers, and the whole Athenian staff. During Entrepreneurship class we had to pick our ‘co-founder’ to start a new project for the bimester. It was nice to get along with new people and start talking about our interests, and to then get paired with them to design a product both of us would enjoy.   

I believe the most challenging part of this exchange was the different time zones. Here in Lima, we are 3 hours ahead from California, so sometimes class could start early in the morning for Athenian students, but at lunch time for us. Another challenge could be the way we call the teachers. Here at Athenian, I learned that teachers were called only by their first name, yat my school every teacher is called with a ‘Ms.’ Or ‘Mr.’ and their last name.

Both Athenian and Markham offer after school activities, including, sports, talks, homework clubs, etc. At Athenian the clubs or affinity groups are a great space to connect with others, not only students but also the teachers. At Athenian, there is a wider option of clubs than my school, so I was able to learn new things I don’t normally get the chance to.

Throughout these weeks, I felt great and liked the fact that every Friday all the exchange students had advisory to catch up and just talk about what has been going on. Also, my exchange, Amanda Dornsife, was a great host. We always had a chat and if I had any doubt, I always contacted her. We have a good friendship even though we are still not able to physically meet ourselves, I would love to keep in contact with her.  

Overall, this virtual exchange opportunity was a great way to start the year. Everyone in the school is so welcoming and caring, I can’t wait to physically visit the school!

Lara Cadarso’s Virtual Exchange

Lara

My name is Lara Cadarso. I study at San Silvestre School in Lima, Peru. My exchange time at Athenian has been amazing, and I believe that I will carry it on with me.

For me, the best part of the Athenian exchange was making new friends and attending lessons I didn’t have back at my school. For example, I took Speech and Debate, which was very interesting as I got to learn about all the different types of debate and how they are performed. US History was very fun as in my school they teach me a different kind. The students and teachers created a very welcoming environment for us, which made me feel accepted from the beginning. Although this virtual exchange thing is new and doing it in person would have been better, I believe doing it was still a great experience.

My exchange buddy, Phoebe, was very kind. Even though I had another host at first, I had a great time with her. She was very welcoming and nice from the beginning. We shared a lot of things in common and connected via zoom. One of my highlights was when we met each other’s families as it was very fun to chat with them. I also really liked learning more about her country, as she did of mine.

The most challenging part of the exchange was probably the time difference as some of my classes were somewhat late. The time difference between San Francisco and Peru is 3 hours. However, I still attended them, and tried my best to enjoy them without minding the time.

My school and Athenian are quite different. One of the main differences is that at my school we call the teachers “Mr” or “Mrs” and at Athenian they are called by their first names. I found this weird at first, but now I’m more used to the idea. Another big difference is the clubs. In my school, they are after our whole school day ends, while at Athenian they are part of the school schedule. The variety of clubs at Athenian is also much wider than at my school. I found this really exciting, as I could enroll in a club that matched my personal interests.

In conclusion, this exchange helped me step out of my comfort zone, make long lasting memories, and build friendships that will last a lifetime.

My Experience at Athenian

BiancaMy name is Bianca Alarcon and I attend San Silvestre School in Lima, Peru. My eight-week virtual exchange at The Athenian School has been wonderful; there is no other way to describe how nice and welcoming the students and teachers are. I feel so happy and thankful about pushing myself to participate in this opportunity that has been fulfilled more than a hundred percent.

I chose to take two courses: Speech & Debate and ESL World History. I especially enjoyed my speech and debate class because I got to learn new useful strategies and ways of debating. It was a very memorable experience because I had the opportunity to help Athenian students prepare for a debate at Harvard. Furthermore, my world history class turned out to be American history, which I liked very much. It was super fun and interesting because I didn’t know much about it. I always think that it’s good to learn new things. Taking these two classes I am amazed by how much I could learn in this short amount of time. I am really thankful because my teachers and classmates were very supportive and were always willing to help me. 

Also, I had the opportunity to join some meetings of “The Bring Change to Mind” Club, which is a club where students and teachers can talk freely about mental health issues. I found it interesting because it was something relatively new for me and was impressed by all the awareness about it. Moreover, I attended several discussions and assemblies related to black history month and the Black Lives Matter movement. I am impressed by how involved the Athenian School is. I had the chance to participate in many activities related to this and learned so much. Additionally I attended two Spanish language classes and I am so impressed by the Spanish level everyone had. I wasn’t expecting such a great level. I really enjoyed the Athenian students’ interest in learning about Peruvian culture. We exchanged questions about school life, politics, food, friends, and family in order to help them on the cultural part of their AP tests.

My biggest challenge throughout the exchange was the time difference; Lima is three hours ahead than California. This was hard for me because most of my classes were around 10 or 11 in the morning meaning that in Lima these were at 1 or 2 PM–our usual lunch time. Another challenge was getting used to calling teachers by their first names instead of Mr. or Miss. To be able to overcome these challenges, I started to organize myself better, eat my lunch earlier, and tried my best to call teachers by their first names. 

Finally, the best part of my exchange has been meeting Chloe, my exchange buddy. We made zoom calls every week and the fun never ended. She is a super outgoing person and host. She made me feel welcome from the very start. Although everything was virtual, I believe we both had an incredible time getting to know each other. I am going to miss her very much yet and we are going to keep in contact.

I just want to say how thankful I am for this opportunity. I am so happy how everything turned out. This experience has truly been one of my most memorable summers in my life, all thanks to the Athenian school, their teachers and their students.

Saumya Agrawal’s Virtual Exchange at Athenian

Saumya

My name is Saumya Agrawal and I’m 17 years old. I study at Vivek High School in India. My experience as a virtual exchange student at Athenian is something I will carry forward with me. 

Before attending Athenian classes, I never thought that meetings over Zoom could be this interactive and exciting. I got to interact with a lot of Athenian students, at the Round Square club and in my advisory group, all having one thing in common, a friendly smile and a welcoming nature. My exchange partner, Sydney Alveda was extremely kind to me. We instantly connected over long emails, texts and Zoom calls. 

Attending Athenian’s all-school meetings on Fridays has been one of my highlights as I got to hear what students really felt about the Black Lives Matter movement. It felt really empowering to see the faculty members and students come together to create a space where there was absolute freedom of expression and everyone was willing to hear what others had to say. 

One of the challenges I faced while attending Athenian classes was the time difference. As there is a 13-hour difference between California and India, most of my Athenian meetings were either late night or early morning. Dealing with this taught me how to manage my time better and more efficiently. 

There are a lot of things at Athenian which are very different from and better than my home school. Here I was asked to call all the teachers by their first name, whereas back home we only address them as sir or ma’am. I noticed that the students here are constantly motivated to speak, and I really appreciate this. The nature of communication between teachers and students at Athenian is very friendly. I really enjoyed being in an Advisory Group for the first time. I was able to talk openly about everything without any hesitation. 

Attending this exchange helped me step out of my comfort zone. I still remember, on the first day of my exchange, I was told to be the most outgoing version of myself. I followed that advice and made memories I will never forget. 

Chloe Burrows’ Experience in Peru

Chloe BurrowsMy experience as a virtual exchange student at the San Silvestre School in Lima, Peru is one I will not soon forget. Despite the obvious differences between an in-person exchange and a virtual one, it was still an incredible opportunity.

The best part of going on exchange is making friends with people who live in a completely different place. While it was harder for me to immerse myself in Peruvian culture because everything was over Zoom, there were a few experiences that gave me the opportunity to get beyond the screen and learn more about Peru and my host family.

My exchange buddy was so kind and welcoming. We instantly connected over Netflix, especially because that was one thing that had become a staple of life over quarantine. It was also interesting to see the effects of COVID in Peru, and I was surprised that we were actually having similar quarantine experiences. I also had the opportunity to get to know another girl at the school. We had a bunch of classes together, and we were in the same group for many projects. She also taught Victoria, another exchange student from Athenian, and I how to cook a meal that her family usually makes on Christmas. It was so fun to share traditional family recipes and spend some time getting to know each other.

One of the challenges I faced while going to school in Peru was the language barrier. Usually, the students who to go to Peru for exchange are taking Spanish in school, or at least, can understand the language. However, because it was a virtual exchange, I was able to go to school in Peru despite not knowing Spanish at all. This proved to be a challenge because while the main classes I attended were taught in English, the extracurricular classes were taught in Spanish. Although it was sometimes difficult to figure out what was happening in the classes, I got better at following what the other students in the class were doing. I also got much better at using google translate throughout the whole experience.

In conclusion, going on exchange, even over Zoom, is an incredible opportunity. You are able to form connections with people you would otherwise never meet, and you will learn so much about another culture.

 

California Nunes’ Time in Peru

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.

Electives

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.

Leo Marek’s Virtual Exchange

As I reflect upon my time as a virtual exchange student at Markham College, my experience seems defined by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Peru has been on strict lockdown beginning March 16th and many students have not been able to leave their houses in months. Because of this, the pandemic was on everybody’s mind. It was not only central to conversations with students, but present in course materials as well. This made for interesting differences from a more traditional in-person exchange.

Foremost, nobody socializes as they would normally. There were many Zoom meetings, but the medium is a far cry from the constant in-person interaction that defines a traditional exchange. This made the exchange feel more distanced, but feeling distant is inherent to virtual learning.

On the other hand, there was a sense of unity as the pandemic and surrounding measures built common ground as we all were experiencing similar things. While we currently have more freedom than the Peruvian students, the isolation that we are experiencing is much the same.

These aspects are just a snapshot of the unique experience that is virtual exchange. While it certainly isn’t a full substitute for an in-person exchange, I would highly encourage going on virtual exchange as you will make global connections and learn about yourself, nonetheless.