“Well, I didn't think it was gonna be THIS cold!” Montse Muralles exclaimed while telling me what she didn't expect about coming to Michigan. She was my exchange student from Guatemala for eight weeks. School, cross country, dance, trips, and parties. Yup, she did them all with us. Through Faces and Our Cultures, our family found a student who we thought fit our lifestyle to care for two months. We loved this experience and we learned a lot of new things, as did Montse.
Many people in Guatemala have gone through this program. Montse found out about the Faces and Our Cultures exchange through a family friend, and I found out about it through school. Montse decided to do the program to get a break from her usual life, and to “come here to experience something different, that isn't the same always, and to see the cultural differences.” In Guatemala, school starts in January and ends in October, so this exchange was in the middle of her “summer” break. That allowed her to go to school as a ninth grader with me at Holland Christian High School.
An overwhelming start
First days at school are hard for everybody, but being in a different country, with people you don't know, and going to a completely different school? That's a little terrifying. Montse said on that first day she was overwhelmed, scared, and very tired because she had only arrived the day before. She also said that in Guatemala she goes to an all-girls school, whereas here she was going to a coed school. Also, in Guatemala, students stay in the same classroom all day and different teachers come to your classroom. And on top of that, they wear uniforms in school and, surprisingly, she said that she prefers it that way. Her favorite things about school in the U.S. were that she did not have as many classes in one day and that it starts later.
Ava Devanney and exchange student, Montse Muralles.
I asked her what surprised her about coming here. Apparently, the Faces and Our Cultures program had prepared them for everything they needed to know, and they were told exactly what it would be like. However, one thing that she did not expect was the snow. She had seen snow before but had never made snowmen or gone sledding. She quickly learned it was not meant for her and found it crazy to not be able to feel your nose when you go outside.
Clearly, there are many differences between the U.S. and Guatemala. When I first met her, she asked me why houses had plastic on them, because in Guatemala they are made of brick material. What stood out to her above everything else was how cold it was. She had all the clothes she needed to stay warm, but every day when she stepped outside she was never warm enough.
Visit was filled with experiences
When I interviewed her for this article, she kept mentioning how fast the end was coming. When we were talking, we realized there were only a few days until she left. She said, “At first it was like, I have a lot of time, and now I leave tomorrow. It went fast because I did a lot.” Some of the things we did were apple picking at Cranes, going to Colorado for Thanksgiving and climbing an 8,300-foot mountain, visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes, rock hunting in Glen Haven, learning to skateboard, and teaching me to crochet. As you would expect, the hardest thing for her was leaving her parents and getting used to it at first. She struggled with homesickness at the beginning as well as the end but loved the whole thing.
Ava Devanney with her exchange student, Montse Muralles at Windmill Island in Holland.
As for me, I loved going through this experience. It taught me a lot about the Guatemalan culture and showed me how important it is to go out of your comfort zone to build your confidence. It was Montse’s confidence that I truly admired about her. Now, what Montse did was a lot braver than my experience, but I found hosting an exchange student built my confidence and stretched my limits as well, to have something so different than my daily life going on. We continued with our normal life while learning new things such as making homemade tortillas and suspiro de limeño. I highly recommend hosting an exchange student through Faces and Our Cultures. My favorite part was having her join us on our trip to Colorado so I had someone my age to hang out with. And Montse’s favorite part? Shopping at Target!