Elisabeth Merrifield reflects on Felsted

My exchange ended a couple of days ago. I definitely miss my school, but I cannot wait to go home. I think I will miss the people the most, along with the stunning campus. I will not miss having to go school on Saturday. The people at Felsted were easy to talk to and have a conversation with, but were definitely harder to become friends with. Therefore, it took me a while to make some good friends, but once I did it made my exchange much more fun.

Originally, I was the only exchange in my year, but during my last two weeks another girl came in from Australia. There were then three other exchanges who were all from Australia, and all there specifically to play cricket. This surprised me because I thought there would be a lot more exchanges at Felsted with me. As it turns out, they don’t do too many exchanges.

I had quite a long exchange, around two and a half months. I was able to learn a fair amount about a different culture and about myself. I know it’s cheesy–I also thought so when I heard it–but even if you don’t have a bunch of crazy stories to share from exchange you cannot come out of it without learning something. Also, even if the effect that exchange has had on you isn’t immediately visible that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Whether it’s just being more comfortable talking to people that you don’t know or having more independence.

Being in England, besides the accent, people my age don’t act too different than they do at Athenian. I originally thought that they would all be posh as the school appears that way, but for the most part they didn’t act that way. They do have different traditions and ways of celebrating things, but I didn’t find it too hard to have a conversation and connect with people.

Since I went to England, there wasn’t a huge culture shock, but there are a couple of things that are different and that I use or watch now. One of the obvious things is their vocabulary. I only thought a couple of words would be different like ‘rubbish’ and ‘cheers;’ however, it turns out that many words that I use in California mean something else in England. You have to be careful with what you say.

One of the ‘traditions’ that they have there is to watch Love Island. I know this might sound odd but almost every single student watches it and many of the teachers do as well. Every time it is mentioned it turns into a 20-minute conversation about the latest plot twists. It is similar to Bachelor in Paradise (if you know what that is), except it is on every single night for eight weeks straight. Every night everyone gathers in the common room and we set up the couches like a movie theater. It has been a bonding experience as you get to know everyone a little better.

Field hockey games were another thing that happened quite often. Much like Athenian, there are a bunch of people cheering the school on. The only difference is that all the games are at night and outside, so it gets cold very quickly.

Felsted offered a couple of weekend trips, but it was during the breaks that I got to go places. During the first break I stayed with a friend and we went to Cambridge. She showed me all the classic British clothing shops as well as the best English food and chocolate (such as a Sunday roast and Cadbury chocolate). During the other break I got to go on a trip with my great aunt and uncle to Venice and Cambridge. During the week-long breaks none of the students can be on campus, and most of them go home no matter how far away that may be.

Overall, I enjoyed my time at Felsted and I will miss all the wonderful people that I got to know there.

Eric Arlen arrives in Peru

Hello from Lima, Peru! My first week in Lima attending Markham College has gone by in a blink of an eye. In the seven days I have been here, I’ve had experiences that I believed would have taken a lifetime. Through leading eleven 12-year-old Markham students on a backpacking trip to building two classrooms at a rural Peruvian school, I have learned so much about Peruvian culture (and Argentinian from my host family), people and, of course, myself.

I arrived in Lima with Micah Ross on the 26th of May and on the 30th I left by bus for a camping/backpacking trip in Santa Eulalia, a small town about two hours out of Lima. Before I left, I experienced my first two days of school at Markham. I was told so many new names that I nearly forgot my own.

Markham is very different from Athenian–teachers are called by their surnames and students wear uniforms–but the thing that really stood out is the curriculum.  I have attended Athenian for five years now and in that time have become accustomed to the way classes are taught. Coming to Markham I realized how special and different Athenian is. My exchange, Lucca Frare, noticed the same thing, but I didn’t understand until I came to Markham. Athenian teaches you how to think, while Markham teaches you what to think. I see the value in Markham’s methods, which are probably useful on standardized tests, but I have come to appreciate Athenian more than ever.

My exchange thus far has been fantastic. My host family has been accommodating, the Markham students have been welcoming, and the food has been amazing. But, of course, it has not gone without challenges. I have been studying Spanish for five years and went into exchange confident in my skills. It is a different game, however, talking to someone who speaks Spanish as a first language. Conversations become blurry with thick accents, fast speaking, and slang (la jerga), which is probably 75% of the words that are used. Challenges like these are the reasons that exchange is such a huge learning experience and I have learned the power that patience holds. By being patient and staying focused, I understand more conversational Spanish every day

The first week of exchange has gone by exceedingly quick. Truthfully, it has been more difficult than expected, but every day gets easier as I grow and mature as a person.  So be patient, be confident, and have fun. It will be over sooner than you think–and want.

Micah Ross Arrives in Peru

Greetings from Lima! I have spent the last two weeks attending Markham College in Lima, Peru. Markham is vastly different both from Athenian and also from my expectations of it going into the exchange. It is a very large school and is difficult to navigate classes, but the people I’ve met here have already changed my life more than I can fathom.

I am currently taking Math, English, Spanish, Global Politics, Psychology, Theory of Knowledge (Philosophy), and Film. Although the school has an IB [International Baccalaureate] program –which ensures that most of the classes are taught in English– all conversations outside of the classroom are in Spanish. When I first came, this was really hard for me because Peruvian accents are extremely thick and they speak very fast. I felt lost and had to force myself to smile and laugh along in social situations where I had no idea what was going on. I was sure that I was going to spend the next eight weeks in this kind of environment, never being able to understand anyone. After being immersed in these situations for two weeks, however, I have come to enjoy soaking up all of the Spanish even if I can’t understand it. Indeed, my ability to understand and speak the language has improved exponentially. In only two weeks, I now understand 80% of what people are saying.

Most of my teachers have been very kind and understanding, though they still give me some work; however, I am really enjoying the assignments they have given me. I am currently working on a presentation about the different political parties in the United States for my Global Politics class. For my Spanish class, I am writing a book report in Spanish about my favorite book, Japanese Lover (also known as El Amante Japonés).

After my first two days of school at Markham, all of the exchanges were required to go on a trip to a place about two hours outside of Lima called Santa Eulalia. This is an annual five-day camping trip for the kids in S1 (7th grade). Students from my grade as well as the exchanges went as leaders. At first, I was worried to be taken out of an already foreign situation and placed in another, but the five days I spent there were honestly incredible. We spent two days building a kindergarten in a really underserved area, and I developed a close connection with a young girl who would be going to school there. Additionally, we went rock climbing, mountain biking, zip-lining, repelling, swimming, and on a mini-backpacking trip. I was able to develop connections with some of the younger kids, and the trip definitely helped improve my Spanish.

My host family is incredible; I could not ask for a better situation. My exchange, Almendra, has been incredibly kind and always ensures that not a day goes by where we don’t try a new food or see a new sight. My host mother, Claudia, has also been so deeply welcoming. When I first came to their house after I arrived at the airport, I was greeted by a cluster of “Welcome Home” balloons and a kiss on the cheek from Almendra, her brothers, and Claudia. I love the hospitality that is so ingrained in Peruvian culture!

Even though I have had so many amazing moments here– such as trying ceviche for the first time, taking a salsa class, or watching the Peru versus Scotland World Cup match with a group of friends–I must say that exchange is not easy. My emotions are overly-heightened. I have often felt lonely, sad, and jealous of all my friends and family back home. As time goes on, the negative emotions have slowly decreased and the positive ones have increased. I have learned that negative emotions aren’t necessarily negative in-of-in-themselves. Instead, they are opportunities to develop your understanding of self during hard times when you aren’t living in the context of your friends and family. Moments like these are hard. It is comforting to know that half of my grade back home are going on exchange and can empathize and relate to the hardships that come with such a huge adjustment in one’s life.

Exchange is such a cool experience because everything about it is so unique. Yet the feelings of hardship and loneliness are universal for your classmates who are also embarking on their own exchange adventures. I have found that talking to my friends who are on exchange is really helpful because they understand exactly what I am going through. I encourage everyone with friends who are going on exchange to check in with them, even if it’s just once. Even a small text from my friends back home brightened my day, and reminded me that I was never alone.

Overall, my time in Lima thus far has been incredible. I have come to love the spontaneity of the culture. I am now used to my exchange walking in my room as I am going to bed and telling me that we are going out for sushi. Every day I wake up and am so genuinely happy to be going to school, to see my friends, and to try more of the INCREDIBLE food. I am so excited to get to spend the next six-and-a half-weeks here and to continue to develop friendships and create new experiences.

Julieanna Fajardo’s Time in Australia

AS I LOOKED through the airplane’s window, I could see the place I would soon call home. Excitement and anxiety coursed through my veins as if I were on a roller coaster for the first time.

In no time, I had landed in Brisbane. As I step off the plane, my mind is filled with a million thoughts of what is to come. I get through customs and I search for hosts. Joy took over as I saw my host family. Kassiah Cook, my exchange, and I run up to each other and embrace in a welcoming hug. We had gotten along so well, we were both thrilled to have more time to spend with each other and to see what adventures we encounter. Although I was on the opposite side of the world, I felt at home.

The first place I was taken to was to meet their cousins, which included a band of three mini-musketeers who would do everything in their power to get your attention. The littlest, Emiline, was the one I would spend the most time with. She would leave her mother as we walked through Brisbane, and ask to hold my hand so she would feel safe. Although I was only with them for two days, I feel as if I had become a part of their family and will always remember the laughs we shared.IT IS FRIDAY NOW, and I have spent two weeks in Australia. I have truly enjoyed every minute of my travels. I arrived during school holidays, so I have had the opportunity to get to know the whole family and explore the beautiful sites of Australia before heading to school. My host family consisted of three new temporary siblings and two wonderful parents, who have so far been the sweetest individuals in the world. As an only child, having a full house is a change, but so far it has been incredible.  They have shown me around Caloundra, the Gold Coast, and now I am home in Moree. This quaint town lies in the North West of New South Wales, where you are bound to recognize someone.

TWO DAYS AGO, Wednesday, April 25th, was Anzac Day. ‘ANZAC’ stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Exactly 103 years ago Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula. Moree offers two services to commemorate all brave individuals who fought in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The whole family started bright and early before dawn to arrive at the Memorial Window in time. I had the amazing opportunity of watching the sun rise as Australian heroes marched through the street.

After this one of a kind experience, we went looking for another unique Australian adventure: the artesian bore. This is a hole in the middle of nowhere, which flows the freshest and warmest water you can find. Many locals travel to these bores as a weekend treat to relax after all their hard work. Older residents have also said that this water helps with joint and muscle pain if you bath in it frequently. Although the water stunk of sewage and rotten eggs, due to the high amount hydrogen sulfide it contained, we all had fun relaxing and splashing in the crisp Australian water.Although I have had a wonderful time during the holidays, starting next week I will have to start boarding at the New England Girls School (NEGS) in Armidale. I have heard many stories from Kassi, but who knows what is to come. I miss my family, but I am also thrilled to see what NEGS has in store for me!

I AM ON MY FLIGHT BACK HOME, and I feel sad because I am going to miss my Callow.

It was my first day at NEGS, and I had just found out where my room was. I was ready to get settled, but first I had to meet my new roommate. Eloise Barden, from Narrabri, had become not only my roommate but one of my best friends at NEGS. Although I saw her 24/7, we somehow never got sick of each other and she had supported me throughout my whole experience. I don’t know what I would have done without her.

As the days flew by, going to school at NEGS became routine. Although I was still amazed that I was there, it sometimes felt as if I had nothing to do. Dismissing this slight challenge, I had an amazing time getting to know all of the girls. Boarding at NEGS gave me an amazing chance to meeting all of them quickly. As time passed I had become closer to all of them and they became a supportive bunch who I could rely on for anything.

Stepping into their classes, everything seemed to be going smoothly, but the education in Australian is a bit behind than what we have at Athenian. Since, it seemed as if I was reviewing, teachers were very flexible and understanding when it came to doing your own work, but still being able to participate in the lesson.

Throughout these few weeks I had the chance to visit Australia, and Moree once again. When I returned to Armidale, my time in Australia went by too quickly. I was finally fully comfortable and almost done learning everyone’s names, but it was time to go. I couldn’t have asked for anything more; Armidale, and the people in the small town have changed my life.

It’s crazy to think that I am almost home! This has been one of the best two months of my life and I wouldn’t change a thing. Everyone that I had the chance to meet has changed me in some way or another, and I am forever grateful.

Most importantly, I couldn’t have experienced any of this without my host family they have been the sweetest individuals in the world. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to become comfortable in their home and with them. I truly believe that I have become a part of their family, and am sad to leave my second home. I will miss them all very much and try to keep in contact. I hope to be able to visit them once again sometime in the near future.


Update from Izzy Andrus at Colegio Los Nogales in Bogotá, Colombia!

Today, I have spent two weeks in Colombia. It feels both like yesterday and an eternity ago that I first arrived at an apartment that I would soon call my home. I never felt the dreaded culture shock that past exchanges talked about or experienced the graph that was handed out on our exchange training day. Instead, Colombia to me is like a modified San Francisco. Upon arriving in Bogota, I instantly felt the vibe of the city. With reggaetón music playing and vendors attempting to sell you hats, food, or bags at every stoplight, Bogota gives you a feeling of freedom and excitement. On my first night, my exchange, her closest friends, and I drove around Bogota at eleven o’clock, eating at the restaurants of contestants for the popular “Best Burger Competition.” The next night, I ate at a restaurant that had people dressed up as dogs chasing you around and pretending to bite your shoes. Of course, all the excitement of the first weekend had to come to a halt with the first day of school.

Colegio Los Nogales shares many of the same values that Athenian holds. The school itself is not that different. It is a big campus with a view of the mountains and the class structure has not been challenging.  I do admit, that I have gotten lost once (maybe five) times, but after the first week, I started to get the flow of things. Also, the school day starts at 7:10 and the school is in the middle of nowhere, so that forces almost all the students to wake up at 5:00 in the morning and take the bus. The class body is about 70 students, much like Athenian, and has about 15 students per class.

Although the classes are very enriching, most of them are in Spanish. Even though the school told me that some classes would be in Spanish and others in English, the only thing in English are the text books. The questions and clarifying answers are asked and answered in Spanish. I am also taking a Spanish Literature class that is currently reading Don Quijote (a Shakespeare written play equivalent in Spanish). Although this has forced me to use my Spanish, it has been challenging at times. The only thing that has helped me survive these challenging classes have been the teachers. The teachers have a close relationship with the students and proved to be very helpful in times of need. Especially for me, being from the US, they understood that the classes are difficult and gave me a review in English. In my Spanish class, my teacher gave me a version of Don Quijote for first graders without any judgement, so I could semi-understand what was happening in the novel. The school day ends at 3:10, and the school days consists of students studying and doing homework.

I haven’t had problems with any of the students. They have all been extremely helpful and kind to me, but the language barrier is definitely apparent. Although I am in Spanish 3 Honors, their way of speaking is very different than what I have been taught. Their Spanish is faster and filled with slang, making it extremely difficult for me to follow along. They have also known each other since first grade. This closeness makes it difficult to catch on to inside jokes built on years of friendship. There have been times where I have felt so uncomfortably awkward that I did not know what to do or say, so I remained quiet. This feeling of quietness is foreign to me. At times, I wished nothing more than to have my friends here with me. Something I have been forced to learn is how to be awkward and be OK with it.

I am the only exchange at the school, so it has forced me to only be with Colombian natives. The first few days were a mix of feeling included and feeling like an outsider to this culture, but I always looked back at the day appreciating all the memories I made. By the end of the first week, I started to speak Spanish more, and their fast speaking became easier for me to understand. I started to learn how to handle myself in these awkward situations and find more people to hang out with when I am completely lost in the current conversation. My confidence has increased, and I have learned to appreciate the moments of awkwardness and grow from them. Anyone going on exchange, trust me, it will get better.

My host family has also been incredible in my assimilation to Colombia. I have always wanted an older brother and recently, with my sister away, a younger one. Now, I have both. My younger brother is six years old, and the older, seventeen. The house is never quiet and there is always someone yelling or the sound of “Teen Titans Go” on the television at full blast. My apartment also has a house cleaner who has been with the family for ten years. Having maids is very common in Colombia, and they are seen as part of the family. She only speaks Spanish, so at times it makes it difficult to communicate; however, recently, we have been able to talk and laugh about things and further improve my Spanish. The mother and I have become quite close, so when my host is busy doing homework I can hang out with her mother.

Every day seems to get better. I meet new people who are excited to hear all about my life. My host and I are becoming closer with every late-night ice cream binge and early morning frenzies. We are starting to reference each other as sisters. I’m very excited to see what else Colombia has in store for me!

Update from Grace True at Regents in Bangkok

Sawadeeka (pronounced sah-wah-dee-khaa) from Thailand!

I am currently starting my third week at the Regents International School in Bangkok. So far, I have had an amazing experience and am so happy that Athenian gave me the opportunity to come here!

When I first arrived at the boarding house (they do not call them dorms because they are on a British school system), I was quickly welcomed by pretty much everyone, adults and students. This really helped me feel comfortable the following day when I started school. As it turns out, I am the first American exchange student they’ve had, which is kinda cool…and a little pressure to represent well!

Upon arriving, I was immediately told people would want to practice their English with me, but it turns out everyone’s English is amazing. I’ve noticed when people first talk to me, they tend to be slightly apprehensive because they worry that they are saying words or phrases incorrectly. Not only do they speak the language perfectly, it is a second or third language for most. It’s impressive to say the least. It’s also really nice not to have a language barrier.  Of course, it makes me feel like a slacker only having a firm grasp on one language!

On my first night in the dorm, I also had the first of what have become many outings to 7-Eleven. (Yes, the little store we barely think about in the US). Who knew?! They are everywhere here and it’s a place students like to go. We get snacks and enjoy the air-conditioning because it’s really hot and humid in Bangkok (especially this time of year). I have a great Thai roommate named Eye and we share a surprisingly large (air-conditioned!!) room.  All the dorm rooms are air-conditioned, but the common areas are not.

The school itself is very different from Athenian. We call our teachers by the more formal Mr. and Ms. and we also wear uniforms (which I really like).

I was able to select my classes on my first day and was excited they had many different types to choose from: Business, Information and Computer Technology; Design Technology; Global Perspectives; as well as many others that I have already forgotten. (I think we may have some of these at Athenian, but, they aren’t available to 9th and 10th graders.) It was a big, interesting list!  I’m taking nine classes, but it is surprisingly manageable.

Their school system is very different here as well. They are on the British school system, so everything is taught in English. They are on the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) for years 10 and 11 and IB (International Baccalaureate) for years 12 and 13. All of the year 11 and 13 students are stressing out about their upcoming tests. I cannot get over how test based everything is. It seems like I hear “you will need to know this for the test” in almost every class. I’m not at all suggesting this is a bad thing; it’s just different.  I like that you know that you are learning what you need.

The other thing is that the tests are not easy! Today, I took one of the chapter tests for biology (they are all made by the people who write the IGCSE tests). I barely got through half the questions and guessed on a lot of them. In my defense, however, I have not taken biology and the teacher told me that she had only given me topics we had covered in her class. (I am kind of questioning that. Ha ha.). Luckily, it doesn’t matter too much for me and it’s all about the experience! Whew!

Things are very structured here. A typical day for me begins with getting woken up at 6:00 or 6:15 by the Gap staff, jumping into my uniform, which makes mornings MUCH easier, and eating breakfast downstairs. (The girls and boys dorms share the dining space). Then it’s off to the bus. It is about a ten-minute ride in Bangkok traffic. Classes start promptly at 7:50. Every morning we go to our tutor groups for ten minutes, which are basically advisories by grade and house. I am in the red house and I feel like I am at Hogwarts! Then I go to whatever classes I have that day. There are 11 half-hour periods in a day. You will have some classes that take up two hours and some half an hour, it just depends. Their schedule is more confusing than Athenian’s. We have a 30-minute break after the first four classes, lunch after the next four classes, then three classes after lunch. I am always starving by the time lunch comes because it is later than Athenian’s and they make you wait until it is your grade’s turn.

After a full day at school, it’s back to the boarding house where we have some downtime and maybe a trip to 7-Eleven. (See, I wasn’t kidding!). At 5:00 pm, we all meet to do homework in the prep room. Then dinner is at 6:00 pm. After dinner, I will finish homework if needed and then have more down time. I cook fairly often, although it is difficult because there are only microwaves and stove tops. I have introduced some of my new friends to s’mores.  I go to bed at 10:00 every night because that is the time the boarding house ‘makes’ us go to bed, but they are not too strict about that. Then I wake up and do it all over again!

I have been able to see some notable sights in Thailand, so it’s not all school all the time! I was able to see some things with my parents before they dropped me off and also skipped school (don’t worry, it was approved!). I also went on a day trip with a staff member to see more sites. I have had the opportunity to see quite a few temples. There are SO many temples! I have been to The Grand Palace (their most famous and insanely crowded temple), Wat Pho (reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun.

Chinatown is a must see and almost hard to describe. It is crazy, especially at night. There is a market running through the area and tons of street food with a giant mass of people, cars and scooters. You have to pay attention or you can get run over! Everything is very inexpensive here, which is a bonus!

On the weekends there will be planned boarding trips to a nearby mall or market. Malls are a big deal in Thailand. They have huge movie theaters, tons of activities, shopping, and are generally much nicer than in the US. I almost never go to malls at home, but in Thailand we go every one or two weeks. As a fun fact, at the movie theatre, they stand up for the King and listen to the national anthem out of respect. I learned this when I saw the latest Avengers movie.

A few other notables. When I was in Chang Mai in northern Thailand with my parents, we visited an elephant sanctuary where we fed and bathed the elephants. It was a little bit stinky and dirty, but, totally worth it! Probably the best thing we did there was cook an authentic dinner with a local family. I plan to duplicate that when I get home.

Although there are many differences in Thai culture and definitely in our school systems, I am learning a ton every day. I am appreciating what sets us apart, but also makes us alike. I have loved every minute of my exchange and am so happy that I have several weeks still ahead.  Sawadeeka!



Update from Jennifer Leigh at Bunbury Cathedral in Perth, Australia!

When I first got off the plane in Sydney, Australia, the only thing I could think about was making sure that my exchange and I made it through customs quickly, so we could make the connecting flight to Perth. We made it to the connecting flight no problem and were off. On landing, we were greeted by her parents right at the gate, which really surprised me as I expected that we would have to navigate on our own through the Perth Airport. Getting to the car, I realized that I really wasn’t in the US anymore. I sat down behind the front “passenger seat” of the car and there was a steering wheel.

After arriving, my exchange’s family took me straight to Rottnest Island to recover from the 21-hour flight and the jet lag. It was absolutely gorgeous, with crystal clear waters and dolphins and other sea wild life. On the island, there is an animal called a quakka, a marsupial smaller than a kangaroo that is only found on Rottnest and that loves to get up close and personal with visitors to the island.

After a couple days on Rottnest, we drove four hours south to my exchange’s house in a small town called Pemberton. One of the things that struck me was how dark it was driving to her house and pulling up to her house. There are no surrounding buildings, just tall gum trees. There were no street lights and the road is made of gravel. My exchange lives on a 50-acre plot of land. The town itself takes up about two blocks and everything closes very early.

Leading up to going to the school, I was very nervous about meeting people and boarding. On arriving at boarding the day before classes, I realized that there was nothing to worry about. All the girls in my unit are very nice and made me feel very welcome.

Bunbury Cathedral is nothing like Athenian. Every building is made of brick and it was hard to tell the different buildings apart. At least for my year, there doesn’t seem to be as much homework. All the boarders go back to their rooms and watch Netflix until dinner and start their homework an hour after dinner is finished. For lunch as a boarder, we are forced to eat in the dining hall, while all of the day students can eat wherever they want except in the dining room. The only days that boarders don’t have to eat in the dining hall are Thursdays and Fridays. I found this very different because Athenian encourages relationships between boarders and day students. I have also found this difficult because I have become friends with other students who aren’t boarders and I can’t eat with them. However, this encourages me to meet new people who I don’t necessarily hang out with.

Exchange is an amazing experience, but it doesn’t come without difficulties. It can feel overwhelming at times trying to wiggle my way into a friend group that has been together for years. However, this experience so far has taught me to just be a little awkward and introduce myself to people, and after the first week at school I’ve made some great new friends.


Ada Martin at Saint Constantine’s International School in Tanzania

Walking out of the plane onto the tarmac, the first thing that struck me was the stifling, humid heat. When I finally got through immigration and customs, I met my lovely host family, and we walked to the car. It was so dark I almost lost them in the parking lot. That was the first of the many small things that have surprised me during my exchange; I had never thought about the fact there is no light pollution here, and nighttime is pitch black unless the moon is full.

My host mom got in on the left side of the car, the driver’s side in my mind, but there was another man behind the wheel on the right side of the car. He was clearly too young to be their father, but they only have one son who sat beside me. I sat in confusion and stared out into the dark night, answering questions here and there, the sound of Arabic and laughter overpowering the torrential rain. It was not until the next day that I discovered the identity of this strange man. Franky is our driver. It is normal here to have a driver, even cooks. When we arrived, Franky pressed the horn several times as we waited outside a gate. Every house here has a gate, tall walls surrounding the house, locks on cabinets and drawers, bars on windows, and dogs for protection not companionship.

The gates were opened after a good deal of horn-honking, and I went to get my bags, but the driver and two other women took them from me. I counted—there are only three girls and one boy. Who were these women? I soon found out that they were maids, which is again, very normal here. I was definitely struck with a  “Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling.

My first night was full of confusion, culture shock, and tears, but I quickly grew to love it here. I have gotten used to the maids taking my shoes to clean them every day after school, used to unpredictable temperatures in my showers, killing mosquitos around the house, locking away my valuables, using napkins as toilet paper. Many of these things seemed so shocking, so foreign when I first arrived, but I now appreciate the simplicity of life here. Life moves slower here, both literally and figuratively. People walk slower, which annoyed me to no end my first week at school; after three weeks, I am accustomed to it. They aren’t in a rush to finish one task and get on to the next; they allow life to happen. The pace of life here is really admirable.

After four days at home, I had my first day of school on a Thursday. Overwhelmed would be an understatement. I was learning so many names that I still can’t pronounce well, I found out that sarcasm isn’t realIy understood here. In many ways, I felt that I was back in elementary school. School begins with registration, ten minutes with everyone in your grade and house. There are four houses, and I am in Athens. Wearing a uniform wasn’t that much of an adjustment, but I can say that I am not a fan.

The hardest adjustment for me is eating at 1:20 everyday. Each class is an hour, with no passing periods. That doesn’t mean we rush to class, people just usually arrive within five or ten minutes after the bell rings. That means I have five hours of classes before I can eat, and my host family doesn’t really do breakfast. The nice thing is we usually don’t have academic classes after lunch. Between 2 and 3:30, we have electives, sports, P.E., or more time with our registration class.

This school is very different from Athenian. Uniformity is one of the words that comes to mind. Everyone dresses the same and sits in the same blue and brown chairs and desks arranged geometrically throughout each classroom. I feel that uniformity implies certain coldness, but it does not feel that way at school. There is so much color here, and the school is full of trees with orange and yellow flowers. The sun hits this part of the world in such a beautiful way. I have this saying that it is always golden hour in Tanzania. I see life through a warm, yellow filter that makes everything look beautiful. Although school is not the best, I really do love it here.

That is not to say that everything has been easy. Exchange is hard. That is why we go, because it stretches and challenges us and makes us more well-rounded individuals. School here is beyond different, and at times I struggle with how different it is. I have definitely grown to appreciate Athenian so much more. Although school is infinitely easier here, it is also infinitely less engaging in many classes.

My experience in school and in daily life here has taught me so much about my privilege. Before I came here I liked to think that I was self-aware when it came to my privilege, but I was not. I have encountered so much that my life in the Bay Area has cushioned me from: homophobia, anti-Semitism, and sexism to name a few.  It is hard to draw the line of when to excuse certain beliefs as cultural differences and when to call out bigotry. I am struggling with that.

These past three weeks have been a lot for me. I have tried so many new foods and met people from all around Africa and, for the first time in my life, I am a visible minority. I have had so many “firsts” all ready. I can’t wait to see what these next four weeks hold.

Sophia Lewis Arrives at United World College Singapore!

Upon stepping off the plane in Singapore, I was consumed by a wall of humid, perfumed air. After being trapped in a stiflingly small metal tube with nothing but my fears and doubts for the past 17 hours, entering the terminal felt like stepping into a dream. One week into my exchange, it still doesn’t feel like the dream has ended.

Singapore is equal parts tropical rainforest and city, giving the impression that its skyscrapers and shopping centers sprung from the ground as naturally as the surrounding palm trees and ginger bushes. This air of free-flowing, ordered symbiosis is prominent everywhere in the city. Service workers are polite, I haven’t seen a single piece of trash on the street since I got here, and the sound of police sirens is virtually non-existent. Days here are long and heavy due to the humid air. They are frequently interrupted by enormous claps of thunder, bright flashes of lightening, and torrential rain. This, partnered with unbelievable red sunrises and sunsets over the sea, gives the whole environment a sense of drama and heightened reality.

UWCSEA, the school I’m attending, has been compared to a miniature town within the city. Spread over many miles and multiple campuses and teaming with thousands of uniformed students ages 5 to 19, the school has a very different feeling than Athenian, though no less welcoming. After just a week, I’ve been introduced to everyone in my grade and many more people throughout the school, all of whom have been extremely friendly and eager to learn about California. The student body is incredibly diverse. It seems that everyone has a story to tell (in an accent I’ve never heard before) about their nationality and how they came to live in Singapore.

School days are similar to what the Athenian schedule promises to be next year, beginning at 8:10 with four classes to a day, but that’s where the resemblance stops. One class will be in a different room every time we meet, and some aren’t even taught by one teacher. Classrooms are spread about the school in identical multi-story “blocks.” I’ve often gotten lost on the way to class and just had to stand there looking helpless until another grade 10 takes pity on me and shows me the way. Despite the confusion, I like the constant change in routine and the possibility of finding a new path every day.

My host family is a perfect fit. My host sisters, one of whom has already lived with me back in February, are friendly and outgoing. We all share a similar sense of humor, so we never run out of things to talk and laugh about. The host parents are both kind, welcoming people who have no shortage of interesting stories to tell me about their pasts.

Although I miss America at times, I feel very at home where I am and I know these next three weeks will fly by.

Update from Malia Smith at Herlufsholm in Denmark!

I arrived in Denmark a couple of weeks ago and now I feel I’ve adjusted to life here. I could have never imagined that such rich tradition, history, and culture is packed into this tiny country. But, the biggest impact I’ve had is the Danish sense of calmness and appreciation for “living in the moment.”

As I am sitting on the bus on the way to school watching the bright orange sun rise, I am given the time to reflect upon my experience thus far. I look out to the fields of tiny white flowers peeking through the grass, wild Christmas trees, and beautiful lakes. The scenery of Denmark accompanied by chirping birds and the scent of the morning air gives a sense of serenity and peace. Maybe this is one of the reasons, but I find that most Danish people are very relaxed and don’t get stressed easily. In fact, I realized, I haven’t truly lived in the moment until I got here.

The school schedule is unpredictable; however, students and teachers don’t complain. Without prior notice, teachers cancel classes or change our schedule, giving a sense of life constantly changing. There is no chaos, rather everyone just accepts it as normal and quickly adjusts their life accordingly. Another feature of this school is that lunches are very long. They last for about an hour, allowing for time to talk and hang out in a very relaxed atmosphere. The teachers don’t allow for cell phones while in the lunch room, so the students really interact with each other. Some people even take walks in the forests to get some fresh air.

Also, the teachers don’t give out much homework. Even then, many students don’t finish their homework in time because they know if they miss the deadline, the teachers would accommodate. So, the students are not stressed about finishing homework. In fact, they are not concerned about achieving good grades. This could be due to the school system in which you get a second chance if your grades are not as good as others. All of these may be factors to a stress-free, calm, and more enjoyable student life.

Being in this relaxed environment, I find myself at peace. This is what makes exchange so interesting. Here, I can hit a pause button on my daily Athenian routine and get to experience a completely new culture and lifestyle. I am living a life I have not experienced at Athenian. I think I can get used to this, at least for a while.