Through her eyes: A millennial girl takes on Central Florida
By Alisha Ashford
During my Junior year of high school, I made an unexpected decision that completely changed my life.
It all started with a presentation put on for my high school about a program called Rotary Youth Exchange. This international program sends students in high school from all around the world to another country for an entire school year. When I first heard about this, I pretty much instantly knew I had to do it. Which was odd for me because I had never once in my life wanted to be an exchange student until that point. It always seemed like something completely outside of my reality.
As I sat in the auditorium listening to what the presenters had to say about this opportunity, I felt a profound sense of certainty that embarking on this journey was meant for me and that it would change my life.
My first thought after having this revelation of sorts was “how on earth am I going to convince my mom to let me live with a random family in a different country for a year?” To my surprise, it wasn’t as hard as I anticipated. My mom knew that even though she would dread having to say goodbye to her daughter for an entire year, it was an opportunity far too incredible to pass up. Having parents who support my dreams is something I’ll always be thankful for.
After endless paperwork, interviews, and lots of stressing out, I finally found out that I would spend my senior year of high school in Spain. I am so blessed to have gotten placed in my first-choice country considering not many people in the program have the same privilege. We were asked to select five countries that we would prefer to live in, and it can sort of be a gamble for everyone. However, I was one of the lucky ones.
I could go on all day about the things I learned, the memories I made, the people I met, and the placed I visited. However, after being back in the United States for just over a year now, I have come to the realization of one overarching lesson I learned about life and myself while I was in Spain.
This lesson I learned was that for me, the most important thing in life is not my circumstance or the things I have, nor is it the places I travel to. Besides God himself, the most important thing to me is the people around me.
Of course, it didn’t take me traveling across the world to realize that I like my friends—what I learned is beyond that. My lesson about people is less about the enjoyed company and more about lifelong relationships and people to share life with. There were three defining ways that I came to this realization.
To my amazement, I began to grasp this concept before I even left for Spain. The Rotary Youth Exchange program builds so much community as a part of the preparation to be an exchange student. I got the opportunity to attend three camps with all the other people involved with the program in order to learn about the journey we would soon embark on. My first time attending one of the camps gave me a huge perspective change. I had no idea that there were so many like-minded people around me who valued taking risks in life and living life to its absolute fullest. Meeting all these people who would become exchange students made me feel so much less alone in the way I viewed the world.
My next life lesson about people that I learned while I was abroad was that even with cultural differences and language barriers, the loveliest friendships can be made with people from around the world. I never expected to become close with the Spanish people in the city I lived in considering I didn’t speak any Spanish before arriving there. About six months into my exchange I was able to understand and speak Spanish pretty well allowing me to get closer to the people I went to school with. There were about three people from my school that I spent most of my time with. By the end of my time there, I had built bonds with these people that were no different to the ones I had once built in America. Just like anyone else our age, my Spanish friends and I did everything together; we went to coffee shops together, we played Mario cart after class together, we galivanted around our town together, and most of all, we laughed a lot together.
The last thing that taught me a lesson about people and relationships was the other exchange students living in Spain at the same time as me. Although I was the only exchange student in my city, I was often able to travel to the nearby cities where there were other people going through the same exact thing as me. Spending time with them was always so refreshing, not only because we could speak English together, but also because they understood every struggle and experience I had because they were ones we all shared. I even ended up meeting my best friend in the capital of Spain, Madrid. She was a girl from New York living as an exchange student just like I was. To this day, we still talk constantly and frequently visit each other.
These people taught me first, that having people that understand you and share your values is crucial. Second, that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world. I would rather be stuck in the middle of nowhere with people I adore than alone somewhere as beautiful as Spain.
Alisha Ashford is a graduate of Lake Mary High School that spent a year in Spain through a student exchange program. She is currently a journalism major at Seminole State College.