There’s one quote that a Columbus East High School junior says has defined her study abroad experience in Colombia: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
It’s been seven months since Sierra Roberts set sail –- or actually boarded a plane — for a year-long adventure in the small Colombian town of Santa Rosa de Cabal in South America.
Her travels are part of the Rotary Youth Exchange, available to high school students interested in living and studying abroad for one year.
Located on the western slopes of the Andean Cordillera Central, Santa Rosa is known for its fertile agriculture and pastoral highland. But Colombia wasn’t Roberts’ first preference for the exchange program.
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“I’ve always been interested in foreign cultures, seeing new things and just learning,” Roberts said. “I was always kind of drawn to the idea of studying abroad. I actually wanted to go to Spain — I wasn’t sure about South America.”
As soon as Roberts arrived in Colombia in August, her preconceptions of the South American country quickly changed. Roberts said Colombia was nothing like what she had expected, making the first few months a difficult adjustment.
“I thought it would be easy for some reason,” Roberts said.
In an Oct. 21 blog post, Roberts writes: “I was letting my emotions and thoughts run me over. I realized that I can’t expect this country, this town, these people to change to accommodate me and fix my homesickness — that’s simply ridiculous and goes against what exchange is really about.”
It was that moment that Roberts said everything around her changed. She started to grasp the language, allowing her to better communicate with her host family and peers and even led her to make more friends. She even started dreaming in the language.
“I feel more grounded here now,” said Roberts, who will fly back to Indiana in mid-June. When she returns, she will present her experience to local Rotary clubs.
But Colombia is facing struggles of its own. Colombia’s neighbor, Venezuela, is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, and for at least the last 10 years, Venezuelans have trickled out of the country with over a million people from that country living in Colombia now.
Just this year, at least 500,000 people have fled Venezuela as the country faces a growing food shortage and its political system remains divided over whether President Nicolas Maduro should relinquish power.
“It’s been directly affecting everyone in Colombia,” Roberts said. “A lot of people call the two countries, “brother countries” because when it comes to accent, culture, food — they’re almost inseparable.”
Since the start of the political turmoil in Venezuela, Roberts said parts of Colombia that were typically deemed safe are more dangerous now because of an influx in immigrants — so much so that some exchange students in one Colombian border city had to leave because of safety concerns.
She said the result of the conflict has reached all of Colombia, including her town where immigrants stand at crosswalks hoping to sell small pieces of candy for a few coins to purchase food for their families.
“You see it every single day here, and it’s a constant reminder of what’s happening there,” Roberts said.
Roberts recently traveled to the Caribbean coast of Colombia where she witnessed extreme poverty for the first time. She recalls watching the view from her window transform from picturesque pueblos to tiny, one-room shacks made of sticks with plastic tarps and garbage bags.
Being in Colombia, Roberts said she’s not only grown as a person, but also her awareness of her own privilege — being fortunate enough to grow up in a sheltered environment in a developed country.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to see how I’ve grown because I’m in the moment and I’m living, and I feel like me,” Roberts said. “Every now and then I have moments where I look back and see I’ve changed so much.”
Back to that quote — the one Roberts said best describes her trip: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
In the beginning, Roberts said she was stuck in the middle of the ocean, floundering. But while she’s still out in the ocean, she’s no longer floundering. In fact, she said she is comfortable with not being able to see the shore.
[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”About Sierra Roberts” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
High school: Columbus East High School
First country visited outside of the U.S.: Colombia
How she describes herself: "I’m extroverted, but not that extroverted. I like to be around people but just a few people at a time. I’m interested in things like politics. I like to discuss things, like what’s going on in the political spectrum, current events, cultural things — more intellectual topics."
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Colombia’s neighbor, Venezuela, is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, and for at least the last 10 years, Venezuelans have trickled out of the country with more than a million living in Colombia now.
Just this year, at least 500,000 people have already fled Venezuela as the country faces a growing food shortage and its political system remains divided over whether President Nicolas Maduro should relinquish power.
Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself president of the country in January because he said Maduro’s 2018 victory was illegitimate.
The Trump administration announced new sanctions Feb. 25 on Maduro’s allies after Maduro refused humanitarian aid to the nation.
Source: The Associated Press
[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”About Rotary Youth Exchange” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
The Rotary Youth Exchange is available to high school students, ages 15 to 19, who are interested in living and studying abroad for one year.
Typically, a family will send their child to another country and receive another exchange student. The program is aimed at promoting the advancement of international and cultural understanding at a person-to-person level.
To apply, contact your local Rotary club to see what exchange opportunities are available and what the application process involves.