It’s one thing to take Spanish classes in high school. But it’s a completely different experience to spend a year abroad where everyone speaks the language and there isn’t a foreign-language instructor to help you translate and navigate through everyday life.
Hailey Weidman did just that, returning from Chile last month from a student-exchange program through Rotary International and the Winter Garden Rotary Club. It was quite the year for Weidman, who turned 18 during the program. What’s more, it was her senior year of high school.
She was accepted into the program in her junior year, and she spent the next year preparing for the trip, learning about the country and speaking at Rotary meetings about her plans.
The school year runs on a different track than the United States, so when she arrived in Chile last August, she had three months left of her junior year and then “summer break.”
Weidman attended a small private school where most of the students had gone to school together since pre-kindergarten. She said as close as they all were to one another, they welcomed her into their group.
“I (had) two years of Spanish here, but that did not help me whatsoever,” Weidman said. “I thought I knew a lot going in, but, boy, was I wrong.”
She took math, Spanish literature, sciences and an English class, as well as the required art, music and physical education. In Chile, students remain in the same class all day and the teachers rotate classrooms. This made it easier to make friends, she said.
Lunch is considered the most important meal of the day, so schools and businesses close for an hour and everyone goes home to eat a home-cooked meal. Upon returning to school for the afternoon, Weidman attended a history class.
She wasn’t graded too harshly, she said, and instructors allowed classmates to help her read and write Spanish.
“They did grade me, but it was more for fun,” Weidman said. “They don’t go by letter grades. They grade 1-7. 1 was the lowest, 7 was the highest. They gave me 7’s.”
She was required to take a few Florida Virtual School classes while in Chile, too.
Exchange students live with three different host families during the year in the Rotary program, and Weidman said she enjoyed having three separate family experiences.
There were six children in her first home.
“They were a very welcoming, close family,” she said. “With this family, they took me out a lot, aside from the Rotary trips; they also took me to different places. We went to the beach a lot. I had a lot of siblings.”
Because they didn’t know much English, she was forced to learn the language, she said.
“I felt like I was a part of their family,” Weidman said. “I had chores. I had errands to run. It made me feel comfortable.”
The second family was a single mother with one daughter at home. The mom worked many hours, and there was no family vehicle, so Weidman learned to navigate the transportation system in the city of Talca, where she was living.
The third household included a mother, daughter and granddaughter plus a university student who rented a room. This was a different experience because the host mother was ill and, at times, bedridden. On those days, Weidman woke up early to take the bus to school.
“Everyone was very family-oriented,” she said. “They all were just very welcoming: ‘This is your kitchen; go grab food whenever you feel like it. Be comfortable.’”
From Chile, Weidman and the other Rotary exchange students took side trips to places such as Patagonia, Easter Island and Atacama Desert.
Getting to the remote Easter Island meant a six-hour flight for the students. While there, they visited a greenhouse and planted several hundred trees as a service project.
“What was cool about the trips was I was able to go north, south, central and to Easter Island,” Weidman said. “I got a feel of the entire country.”
She and several other students served as counselors at an English camp in a rented cabin.
“They had these kids who really wanted to speak English, so we had a weekend up in the mountains,” she said.
Weidman ended up in the hospital for four days while in Chile because she had tonsillitis that turned into strep throat and Phlegmon. She said she was a bit of a celebrity as “the American girl” in the hospital. She got worried when the doctor suggested she have her tonsils removed, but her parents decided the surgery could wait until she returned home.
“That was one of the hardest parts of the exchange, but it was hard not having my mom there,” she said.
Toward the end of her year abroad, her Ocoee family went to visit, and her mother said they were amazed at how fluent she was in the language.
“We thought she would be slower and have to take the time to translate,” Nadine Weidman said.
Weidman said it was fun to act as their tour guide for the week.
“As of now, it’s been the best year of my life so far,” she said. “I was able to break the stereotype. I think people have misconceptions about Chile and South America. They’re very advanced. … I think I found more similarities than differences. One thing about change is you have to keep an open mind. You have to just accept it as it really is. You have to be really patient. But I think it was beneficial.
“Chilean people are really nice,” she said. “Everyone in Chile that you meet, they’re just really helpful and loving.”
For Weidman’s birthday, her host mother and a classmate threw a surprise party after a day at the beach.
“I think I’ve grown, being thrown out of my comfort zone,” Weidman said. “Now I’m more outgoing. I’m also more independent. I gained a lot of independence during the exchange.
Going into it, I didn’t think I was capable of becoming fluent in Spanish. … Coming out of it, I’m definitely fluent in Spanish.”
The trip also steered her on a new career path. Weidman said she wants to study foreign affairs or international business.
“Going into the exchange I just wanted to see the world with a new set of eyes,” she said. “Something I’d take out of it is that I can use in life that when I’m going into something new, to keep an open mind. Before the exchange … I had my idea of what Chile is like, but going there and actually experiencing it … it wasn’t at all what I expected it to be.
“Another thing I gained was having connections all over the world,” she said. “I now have friends in South Africa, New Zealand, Europe. I would call some of them my best friends now. … You bond really fast.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.