As Academic Year in America celebrates 35 years of enriching lives through international high school exchange, we are thrilled to be hearing from so many former students about the wonderful impact our program has had on their lives. Today, we are lucky to share this article by an AYA student from our early years. Elena Arrate has spent her entire career in the field of international exchange and education. Below, she shares some reflections on her time as a high school student abroad and professional insight on differences, particularly in communication, that she’s observed over time.
It’s incredible to look back and check that I completed my American experience more than 30 years ago! It was the 1985-86 school year (class of ’86). I left my home in Spain to go live in Chesaning, Michigan, and study at Chesaning High School. I enjoyed very much my Senior year there.
I loved the school; so different to what I was used to in Spain, changing from class to class, teachers very close, all kind of subjects, the clubs, etc. I also remember my Local Coordinator very well. His name was Bernie Townsend, and he was a great help for me.
I’m still in contact with my American sister. When I returned home she came with me for that summer. I think she got a great summer here with my family. She came back to Spain a few years later to study at a Spanish university for a semester. The university was far from our home, but she stayed that summer with us again. After that we lost contact, but we re-established contact about 8 years ago. I found her through the internet and it was great. She is a school teacher now, has three kids and she is very involved in high school. We get in contact about a couple of times per year, and we inform each other about our families.
In my professional life, I’ve worked in high school programs since the very beginning, and I think that my experience as an AYA student always helps me to advise the students (because I learnt from my own “rights and wrongs”). I also see, through the years, that the experience has changed a lot due to the progress in communication (cell phones, internet, Skype, etc.). I wrote and received a lot of letters and talked to my parents on the phone every two months; but right now the students’ contact with their families and friends is almost constant.
On my side, as a person who’s been working in the field of student exchange for more than 20 years, and dealing with parents while their children are abroad, I see a great difference from my first working years and the present. Right now, the students tend to contact their natural parents as soon as something happens to them; no matter what the problem is or how important it is. That wasn’t an option during my stay in the U.S. and that made me try to solve my problems on my own. I could not phone home whenever I wanted it, and a letter was a very slow way to find a solution, so I had to solve the problems by myself or to ask for my host family or coordinator’s help. That helped me to mature too.
Now, when something happens to a student and we phone the parents to inform them, we find out that they are already aware of everything. It seems they are living a “long-distance American experience.” It’s hard for them to disconnect in the present day. While disconnecting with parents and independence were a bigger part of the program 30 years ago, students are now able to take friends and family along for the journey with modern technologies. This is a significant change between then and now.
I’ve tried to find some pictures from my exchange year, but I don’t have many of me since I was the one who took the pictures, but I did find a few to share.
Thank you very much, Elena, for sharing this story with us. It is amazing that so many years have passed, but how wonderful that you are now a colleague in the field, having pursued a career in international exchange and education. It is a great honor to hear from former students like you—and to see the enduring connections and ongoing impact of your experience as an international high school student with AYA.
To learn more about hosting an exchange student with AYA, visit www.academicyear.org.