Spain an adventure for Mt. Pleasant students
Try to go to high school in a foreign land, listen to teachers give instructions in their native tongue, assimilate into a different culture and live with a family not your own for 10 months.
That was the challenge that two 17-year-old Mt. Pleasant Area girls — Natalie Black and Sylvia Dawson — faced when they spent the last school year in two different cities in Spain as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange program.
Black, a Mt. Pleasant Area senior, and Dawson, 17, who graduated high school this spring, lived with Spanish host families involved in Rotary. Dawson was in Sant Pere De Rebes in the province of Barcelona, while Black was in Almoradi, located in southern Spain near the Mediterranean Sea.
“I loved it. It was a life-changing experience. I would definitely do it again,” said Black, who is considering studying Spanish and history when she goes to college next year.
“It was probably the best year of my life. It was an amazing experience,” said Dawson, who is a freshman at Robert Morris University in Moon Township, where she intends to study statistics and predicative analytics.
Dawson, who studied Spanish for three years in high school, said she had challenges communicating. The language they learned studying in Mt. Pleasant was different than what she heard in Spain. Dawson said only two of her classmates spoke English and neither was prepared for Spain’s education system, where every examination can impact a student’s ability to attend a university.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Dawson said.
Black said she was unable to join in on conversations with her Spanish friends because of the difference in language, but communication with her host family was easier because the father and a son spoke some English.
Trying to understand a subject when it is taught in a foreign language was taxing, the girls said. In the first two months, Black said she was translating from Spanish to English in her mind, but was able to understand the Spanish.
Dawson joked that when she returned home in July, “it was hard for me to hear English all the time.”
The girls said it took a while to get adjusted to the different lifestyle.
“It took me maybe two-to-three months to fully get accustomed to the school and the food,” Black said.
Dawson said she had to go into the experience with an open mind.
“You have to be able to accept that things aren’t they way they are back home. You can’t keep doing things the way you were used to,” Dawson said.
The Spaniards Black met had a distinctive view on Americans, she said.
“Not necessarily that they don’t like (Americans),” Black said. “They have an idea of what we have done in the past and that contributes to the way that they see us now.”
Dawson’s fellow students asked if America was really like what they saw on television and in the movies. She countered that with an explanation of what life was like for her in Mt. Pleasant.
Although they were half-way around the world, Black said that through technology — texts, calls and video chats. She was able to keep in contact with her family, especially on the major holidays and her birthday.
“You definitely feel homesickness on the major holidays, when the family is all together and you can’t be there,” Dawson said.
The girls had the opportunity to travel with fellow Rotary students to other cities in Spain, such as Grenada and Seville, as well as to France, Germany and Belgium, Black said.
Dawson said she missed participating in her graduation with friends and family on June 7, but she did get to spend that day in Paris.
Both girls had experience with a foreign exchange program. Dawson’s mother, Kandida Dawson, went to Germany as a foreign exchange student and Black’s family hosted two exchange students from Germany and Romania during her sophomore year.
The girls applied to the Rotary Youth Exchange in the summer of 2017, then went through a selection process starting with interviews with the Mt. Pleasant Rotary Club and then regional Rotary organizations.
“The program’s objective is to foster world peace, international understanding and good will by extending international communication at the personal level through the exchange of students of high school age,” said Jeff Simmons, outbound coordinator for the Rotary District Youth Exchange.
Black and Dawson joined Brandon Hegland of Franklin Regional and Evan Roncace of Jeannette, as the only Westmoreland County students this past year to be in the Rotary Youth Exchange. Hegland lived in Paraguay and Roncace spent the year in France, said Simmons, a member of the Rotary Club of Zelienople.
“I would love to do it again,” but “have to do it by myself,” Dawson said of traveling to Europe.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, [email protected] or via Twitter .