I arrived in Colombia almost two weeks ago and so far this experience has completely changed my life. My exchange had come to Athenian in January and February, so I already knew her, but I was a little nervous about the language barrier and cultural differences coming in. I have grown already in ways I could not have even imagined. My exchange’s whole family (besides her mom and sister) only speak Spanish, as well as her nanny (many people in Colombia have someone who comes to their house to cook and clean during the day). This has made it necessary for me to communicate solely in Spanish with these people from the second I stepped off the plane.
I have made so many new friends already. About half of our conversations happen in Spanish, which definitely took some getting used to at the beginning. I feel infinitely more comfortable speaking in Spanish–and everyone here LOVES when I speak. If you are going to a country that speaks a different language, I highly suggest learning at least some of that language before you come and don’t worry about sometimes speaking incorrectly because everyone will understand. Colegio Anglo Colombiano (the school I am attending) is a bilingual school, so half of my classes are in Spanish including Philosophy, Physics, Spanish Literature, P.E. and Art. The majority of the conversations outside of the classroom occur in Spanish, which at some points can be difficult, but when I get lost one of my friends will always happily fill me in (in English).
I have adapted to many of the cultural customs–my favorite being the kiss on the cheek and hug you get every time you greet or meet someone–and feel increasingly comfortable in a foreign country where everyone speaks a different language than I am used to. Everyone wears a uniform at the Anglo, which I have grown to appreciate more than I first thought I would, and the student-teacher relationships are nowhere near as personal as they are at Athenian. The culture of Colombia is very centered around relationships with your family and friends, which has been an amazing way to meet tons of people because of the amount of time I spend with them. Also, dancing and music is a huge part of Colombian culture. I am currently taking a rumba class (a mix of salsa, traditional Colombian dance and Zumba) with Natalia’s older sister, Marianna, twice a week. This has been so much fun!
The 11th graders at the Anglo (who are the equivalent to 12th graders in the U.S.) finished school last Friday, so Marianna has had tons of free time and has been able to show me all around the beautiful city of Bogotá. Some of my favorite places so far have been a visit to Natalia’s farm in the countryside and visiting El Centro (or downtown) where the congress is located and the president lives. I also have gotten to visit Guatavita (where indigenous Colombian people used to live) and a super interesting, traditional flea market.
I think the hardest thing I have had to adapt to is how lightly they treat offensive issues. There is definitely homophobia and some level of sexism present in everyday life. However, I have been able to have extremely meaningful conversations with many of my new friends about these issues and they are incredibly intrigued to learn about California. Many of them wish their school was as open as Athenian is. It has felt amazing to share some of my home while being immersed in their amazing culture. While it is sometimes difficult when people ask me about American politics, I have been able to have very important discussions about the U.S. as well as the Colombian government with them.
I think what I have learned the most so far is you get out what you put in. If I go out of my comfort zone and introduce myself to new people and start conversations with them, while it may be scary at the beginning, it pays off so much!
Avrah Ross prepares to leave Colombia
Deciding to go on exchange was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The world is so big. There is so much to learn, so many people to meet, and so much food to taste! I have been able to enjoy Colombian music, learned how to dance the Rumba, and have picked up on a lot of the local slang and Colombian culture. This experience has taught me that there is so much more to life than the stresses that we worry about in our daily lives. The exchange experience truly exemplifies multicultural awareness and extends learning beyond the classroom.
The Colombia that I have experienced is so different from the country that many people in the U.S. imagine it to be. I have had many eye-opening conversations about Colombia’s image to the rest of the world. The school which I attended, Anglo Colombiano, and Athenian are significantly different. For example, there is much less homework at Anglo, which allowed me to spend more time with friends after school and over the weekends. In addition, the vast majority of the students have been attending Anglo since they were four years old, so they have very close relationships with each other. At times this was difficult for me, but it also made them more excited to make new friends.
During my time in Colombia, I was able to visit Villa de Leiva (one of the oldest pueblos in Colombia), Ana Poima (tropical rainforest), and Lake Guatavita. In addition, every day after school I was able to enjoy time in downtown Bogotá with my new friends. Some highlights of my exchange were attending my first quinceañera, going to a costume party, and being a part of the school’s Oscar’s Night (a showcase of the movies which we had directed and preformed in).
The people I have met while on exchange are the some of the most compassionate, open, and loving people I know. It is amazing to see how much my Spanish has improved while being in Colombia, and to see how much more independent and outgoing I have become. One of the hardest parts of exchange was pushing myself out of my comfort zone in order to make new friends. There were many “jokes” that I found offensive, but were culturally appropriate in Colombia. However, I have been able to have very meaningful conversations with my friends about the intent behind these jokes.
Saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I would not trade my experiences during these past six weeks in Colombia for anything. I know that I will return soon, but it is so difficult knowing that this Monday I will not be at the Anglo with all of my friends. I know that the relationships that I have made will not end when I leave, and that the people who have defined my exchange will continue to define the rest of my life. It is impossible for me to wrap my head around the fact that my new best friends were complete strangers less than two months ago…
Some final tips for going on exchange:
- It’s okay to feel awkward.
- Push yourself–try new food, initiate conversations with new people, speak the local language if it’s not English.
- Try not to spend a lot of time on your phone and limit social media.
- Try not to compare it to home; it will obviously be different.
- Make the most out of every moment.