Everyone dreams of being able to travel one day – to experience different cultures, meet diverse people, eat new food and see fascinating landscapes. Yet for most people, traveling is a distant hope for the future. For me, this dream has been realized.

From March 24-April 6 of this year, I, along with nine other students and teachers from Mason, participated in the biennial exchange program with Trewhela’s School in Santiago, Chile. While there, we immersed ourselves entirely by staying with Chilean families and attending classes at their school. This experience was completely nerve wracking, yet completely worth it.

Usually on a trip, the travel section is the most stress-inducing part. Afterwards, you get to relax and enjoy your vacation. For me, this was the opposite. On the plane ride, I slept, watched movies, and, most importantly, spoke English. In my head, I never wanted the flight to end. Yet I knew I was being unreasonable. I’m going to South America for the first time, I’m with some of my best friends, and I’m going on vacation for two weeks, I thought. It’ll be great.

And I was right. In fact, this was the best trip I’ve ever been on, for multiple reasons.

My family treated me like a daughter and I’m forever grateful for their welcome and hospitality they gave me while I was there. The host family I stayed with has become like my second family. Catalina, the student in the exchange, will be my lifelong friend because of the bond we created when she was here, and the time when I was in Chile.

My host family, me, Kaia Jefferson, (who stayed with the same family) and Laura Flores, Catalina’s friend, in Santa Cruz, Chile, about two hours south of Santiago. There, we visited a vineyard and went to Museo Colchagua, a history museum. (Photo courtesy of Catalina Alvarado).

While there, Catalina introduced me to some of her friends, like Nassi Moir and Lina Moreno (just to name two), who I now feel like I will also have lifelong friendships with, despite only knowing them for two weeks. That’s why these programs are so special – even though we are forced to squish everything into two weeks, that allowed for everyone to just savor every second and take advantage of each experience. And that’s what I did, and because of that, I gained some new amazing friends.

Of course, this trip did serve its original purpose too – learning Spanish. Before the trip, I could speak the language, but nowhere near fluency and I definitely lacked the confidence to speak it with a native speaker. I’m still not fluent, but listening to and immersing myself in the language for two weeks made me a significantly better speaker, and I feel so much more confident in the language in general. Without going on this trip, I don’t think my Spanish would be as good as it is now.

There were certainly stresses involved in this trip, but that is the case for any getaway. Despite the money ($2,500 overall) and the time commitment involved in this trip (it was my entire spring break plus another week of school), the experience is simply too good to pass up. If you are offered an opportunity to go on an exchange abroad to learn a language, volunteer, or just be a tourist, take it. Gaining lifelong friendships and unforgettable memories is priceless.

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