Exchange opens eyes of students abroad

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories on the five exchange students spending time at West this year.

Imagine coming to West, for the first time, from an entirely different continent, speaking a different language,  in a completey transformed community. Two such brave souls have arrived from Chile and Finland to take on American life, courtesy of the Rotary International Youth Exchange Program. Hailing from Chile is Maria Ignacia Ravanal Encina Nachy, and from Finland, Helmi Berg. For those born and raised half way across the world, the USA can be a frightening change of pace.

“Life in Chile is much more calm, but here you have to do it all,” said Nachy. “It’s a crazy life.”

While the American lifestyle may seem fast paced and exciting for Nachy, Berg was not all that affected since this was not her first encounter with traveling abroad.

“The transition is usually pretty easy because I have been taking a lot of international classes back in Finland that prepare me for this,” she said.

Unlike students in the United States, Finnish students begin to study and learn foreign languages early in elementary school, allowing for more growth and comfort. Further contrasting the American school system, Finland’s academic structure includes nine years at a primary schooling facility. From there, students choose to attend a three year high school or a three year college. After high school graduation, Berg hopes to continue on to medical school.

“Schooling is very independent in Finland and people are responsible for their own education and how much they want to learn or how long they want to go to school,” Berg said. “If you feel like skipping class one day you can and no one has to call you in or give you permission.”

In contrast to the relaxed academic environment in Finland, Chile’s is far more strict  and aggressive.

“We don’t have study hall, free hours, or a school store,” Nachy said.

Experiencing a new form of education isn’t the only reason these students wish to study abroad. Travel provides a stepping stone to dreams.

“One of my goals in my life is to travel a lot,” Nachy said. “If you can survive in the U.S., you can travel anywhere.”

Berg also knows the value of traveling and gaining new experiences, as this is her third time as a foreign exchange student. Both of her other trips have been week-long stays in Germany, where she adapted to new language and culture quickly. She has hopes that visiting the U.S will be similar. Already building on her cultural experiences, Berg has toured New York, as well as sailed the Apostle Islands, with her host family. Beyond book learning, such experiences stimulate personal growth.

“I hope to accomplish my goals of becoming more confident and improving my social skills and English,” she said.

Studying abroad comes with challenges, even for an experienced student like Berg.

“I lost my grandpa three weeks ago, so that has been hard, and not being able to be with my family and friends is hard too,” she said. “I was afraid to leave everything back home, but I am keeping in contact with my family and friends.”

Unlike Berg, Nachy chooses to focus on the present instead of what she has left behind.

“I have more opportunities here than I would in Chile,” she said.

Keeping her sights open and hopeful, Nachy is looking to take advantage of all she can while in the U.S. Not only does a year in a new country open doors to new and exciting opportunities, it brings a new family.

“I have one brother, but now I have two sisters,” Nachy said.

Berg sees value in the broadening of her horizons, and urges others to do the same.

“Just go for it because it will really help you and you will come out of it a lot more confident and skilled than you were when you began.”

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