Back from Bolivia

Former foreign exchange student Victoria Mischley tells all about her time in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.

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The Bolivian flag

Ally Stapleton, Editor in Chief

Just days before Victoria Mischley’s junior year of high school, as hundreds of her classmates were preparing for the new school year by buying new clothes, purchasing school supplies, and comparing schedules, Mischley was boarding a plane. In Chicago. On its way to Miami. A few hours and a layover later, Mischley left the United States, not to return for the next nearly 10 months. Her time as an exchange student in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia had begun.

“At first, I was like ‘This is going to be so awesome,’ but then as it got really close I got really scared and I [thought] ‘What am I doing? I’m not this type of person, I’m not adventurous, I don’t even like roller coasters, why am I doing this?’” said Mischley, who is now a senior. “But then I made myself go because I knew I wanted to in the beginning, and I didn’t want my fears to stop me.”

Mischley spent nine and a half months living with families in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, fully immersed in the culture and language of Bolivia. Choosing to forgo typical junior year activities such as ACTs, SATs, AP classes, and college visits, Mischley instead spent the year that many consider to be the most important for college admission learning to live in a different society and getting used to the country that she now considers her second home.

The Chance of a Lifetime

Mischley, who loves to travel, said that she always wanted to study abroad in college but didn’t know until ninth grade  that an exchange experience would be possible in high school.

“One time, I was at a doctor’s office and this guy heard me talking about how I liked to travel and he said ‘You should look into this program,’” Mischley said. “That was my freshman year and after that I couldn’t stop thinking about it the whole year, and so I applied my sophomore year to go abroad junior year.”

The program the man had referred to was Rotary Youth Exchange, a program which allows American high school students to stay with host families in foreign countries for a school year. In spite of a few reservations, Mischley trusted that her initial desire to go had been right and sent in her application.

The decision was a difficult one not only for Mischley, but also for her family. Her mother, Michelle Mischley, also had to conquer her fears about her daughter leaving the country for nearly 10 months. Michelle said that she had several hesitations about the idea, but eventually decided that the experience would be immeasurably beneficial for her daughter.

“A few months after she had originally talked about the exchange, she started to get cold feet. Once she got past that, however, I felt even more strongly,” Michelle said. “I figured that she had thought of the downsides, struggled with them, and had still gotten past them.  At that point, I knew she had to make this dream a reality. … My guiding principle was, ‘How can I get in the way of allowing my daughter to become the person she is supposed to be?’  I really thought this opportunity was something that would shape her and in some ways define her.”

Life 4000 Miles from Home

Adjusting to life on a new continent presented Victoria with a host of challenges. Living in Bolivia meant different customs, different holidays, different modes of transportation, different climates, and, perhaps most significantly, a different language.

Victoria, who had taken three years of Spanish before traveling to Bolivia, said that although a foundation in Spanish was helpful, she struggled to understand even simple phrases upon her arrival.

“My first host family didn’t speak any English, and I remember [my host mom] trying to tell me to go to the bathroom, and I was not understanding her,” Victoria recalled, laughing at the confusion. “With little things like that, it just helped to have a basis [in Spanish].”

School in Bolivia bore little resemblance to school in the United States. Victoria arrived each day for school around 7:30 and left at 12:45. At this time each day she returned to her host family’s house for lunch with the whole family. With less emphasis on grades (“To pass, you have to get 50%, so over that’s a good grade,” Victoria said), a more “lax” approach to tests and school in general is taken in Bolivia. She observed that less restrictions were placed on proper behavior in the classroom, and witnessed “crazy stuff you would never see [in school] here,” including boys wrestling in class and students accidentally burning themselves under teacher supervision in science class. Overall, life for Bolivian teens is more relaxed, Victoria believes.

Timing in general proved to be one of the most significant differences between life in Bolivia and life in the United States.

“They’re always late!” Victoria said. “I would arrive late everywhere and I’d stay out until 12:00 on a school night with my host family, and then have to go to school at 7. … But you take siestas [naps] in the middle of the day. That’s how you catch up on your sleep.”

Bolivia, with a per capita GDP that is one-tenth of the United States’, is the poorest country in South America. Even in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s most prosperous city, the difference between life in one of the world’s wealthiest nations and in one of its poorest was noticeable. While a person ambling through Bolivia’s streets would not necessarily be in any kind of danger, Victoria said that stealing was a major problem. Many of her Bolivian friends and fellow exchange students had phones stolen during her time there, prompting Victoria to be more careful about keeping track of her belongings.

Though Santa Cruz de la Sierra is a poorer and arguably more dangerous city than Grand Rapids, high school students there are far more independent in their use of public transportation, a cultural difference which Victoria was forced to get used to in the second half of her exchange, when, as is suggested by  Rotary Youth Exchange, she switched host families in order to more fully understand the culture of Bolivia.

“At first I was really scared to go out by myself without [my host parents] driving me, so that was a problem because I needed them to drive me everywhere,” Victoria said. “[My first host parents] were really overprotective, which was a good first host family. My second host family, they were a lot more lenient, so I had to learn how to use the public transportation and get over my fear of the taxis. There were stories about people getting assaulted by taxi drivers, and I was so scared, but it was fine.”

Victoria’s time in Bolivia was filled with both good and bad moments, ups and downs on a long journey that, in the end, was all worth it. Although she had fears about getting on, her exchange trip was one rollercoaster ride that she doesn’t regret.

“The hard parts definitely make the good parts more worth it. Sometimes I focus more on the hard parts but that’s just because the good parts are more everyday things, whereas the hard parts were specific moments. I definitely made a lot of connections from all over the world. My best friends are in Bolivia and I have a really good friend in Denmark and in Canada. It’s a really cool thing that you can’t get from staying in high school.”

Leaving One Home for Another

Victoria’s return to the United States was a joyous occasion, especially for Victoria’s family, who were soon to learn that, although Victoria was in many ways returning home, she was also leaving another home that she had discovered in the past year.

“[Victoria] had matured, was wearing nearly all new clothing, and I noticed that she smelled just slightly different [when she got off the plane],” Michelle said. “That was what really made me realize that she had not just visited but also had lived in a foreign land.  Then on the late drive home from Chicago, I thought she might want to get caught up on the latest popular songs. But she was more interested in playing for me some of her favorite music that she had on her phone.  She played all of these songs in Spanish!  I double-checked, ‘So this was one of your favorite songs?’  ‘Yes, my friends and I all love it!”  That was the final proof for me that she had become Bolivian.”

After a few months of reflection on her adventure, Victoria now says with conviction that none of the things she gave up to go to Bolivia could outweigh everything she learned from being there. Her view of the world, she said, was broadened by the experience. After experiencing a new way of life, Victoria says that she saw more clearly what was important in life, as well as came to the realization that life cannot always be viewed in black and white. It is much more complicated than that.

Sandra Hansen, a director of Rotary Youth Exchange for the Holland Rotary (the rotary chapter through which Victoria applied), echoed this belief that exchange experiences are valuable for students long after the exchange ends. By living in another country, they make life-changing discoveries about the world and about themselves. This has proved true for Victoria.

“When you get to know people from other countries you realize that despite different cultures, religions, clothing, politics, etiquette and everything else, people are just people,” Hansen said. “All of the important things like love, joy and family are the same everywhere. … As teenagers these kids grow immensely. … They learn to conquer loneliness, and to speak a new language. They learn to be compassionate and to be patient. These attributes will help them every day of their lives. If a student is ready to take this on, they discover that there is nothing they can’t do.”