When Jennifer Roberts returns to classes at Wiregrass Ranch High School next week, she’ll be a far different person than she was when she last attended classes there.
Roberts, who is entering her senior year, left the United States last September to take part in the Rotary Youth Exchange program, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Wesley Chapel Noon.
Roberts went to high school in Zaragoza, Spain — the country’s fourth largest city —situated between Barcelona and Madrid. The 17-year-old said the experience was nothing short of life-changing.
When she arrived there, Roberts barely knew enough Spanish to introduce herself and to say that she’s from Florida. “At first, it was really difficult,” she said.
Even a simple conversation was challenging.
“It makes you miss your native language, because you really have to think when you are speaking another language,” Roberts said.
She mastered some coping skills, to help her through.
“You learn how to just smile and nod,” Roberts said.
She was thrilled when her Spanish-speaking skills had improved to the point where she understood what was going on. When that clarity came, “You just get the moment of joy, ‘Oh, I can understand you,’” she said.
Despite the initial language barrier, Roberts said she felt welcome from the moment she arrived.
“I stayed with two different host families,” she said. “They were amazing. They just accepted me.”
The kids she met at school were nice, too. When they found out she was from the United States, some told her: “Oh, that is so cool.”
Some had misconceptions about Americans, Roberts said. Rampant media reports about guns in the United States have painted the wrong picture.
“They think that Americans just carry guns in their purses,” she said. Some even asked if she had a gun, and if she was carrying one around Spain.
“I was like, ‘I don’t actually know anyone that has a gun in their house,’” Roberts said.
Of course, because she’s a Floridian, some wanted to know if she had alligators as pets. When Roberts told them there was an alligator in the pond of her backyard, some wanted to know how she wasn’t killed by it.
On the pop-culture front, Roberts said, the music and movies are exactly the same. In fact, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” came out a week earlier in Spain than it did in American theaters.
Going out for dinner is different, though.
“It’s very expensive to go out to eat, so typically people don’t go out unless they’re wealthy,” Roberts said. “There, when you go out to eat, it’s a three-course meal. When you order off the menu, it has three options for the courses. It’s a set price for everything.”
Meals are leisurely affairs, too.
“If you go to lunch, it’s usually a four- to five-hour process,” she said. “Or if they’re trying to rush it, it would be two hours.”
Other differences? There are no drink refills or ice, Roberts said.
While in Spain, she craved fast food and Starbucks.
“Before I left, I was not a big fast-food person, but after you’re away, you kind of miss it,” Roberts said. “You kind of miss things like Chick-fil-A.”
She was never so happy to see a taco in her life as she was when a Taco Bell opened in the Spanish city where she lived.
“The only time I got to go to Starbucks was when I was in Madrid, Barcelona or at the airport,” Roberts added.
During the school year, she studied nine subjects, with different classes on different days. At her school, the students stayed in a group together throughout the day, while teachers changed classrooms.
Besides her time in Spain, Roberts had the chance to tour other European countries, including stops at the Berlin Wall, and in Paris where she got to see the Eiffel Tower and the “Mona Lisa.”
As she traveled about, Roberts noticed how similar Spanish is to French and Italian, and now she wants to learn those languages, too.
Roberts thinks her experiences abroad will help her in a future career, whether it be law, politics or international affairs.
She thinks they will help in her day-to-day life, too.
“After being an exchange student, you don’t sweat the little moments,” Roberts said.
Published August 13, 2014
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