From Ecuador To The U.S., My Rotary Exchange Was The Best Year Of My Life

Nathaly Gracia Rodríguez at the Grand Canyon.

PUERTO DE MANTA, Manabi, Ecuador – Now that my Rotary exchange year is over, the only thing I think about is going back to my first day in the United States.

There are no words to describe it, but it is the best year of your life.

It is hard to understand that in a teenager who is a total stranger in a new country can survive by herself, learn a different language and – the really special part – can, in one year, learn things she never could have in her whole life.

I still remember when I arrived at the airport. My heart wanted to get out of my chest.

I think about my first night in my new room, sleeping in a different bed, one that now I am missing to death.

I get lost looking at pictures with my American family, friends and sports teams because I feel one part of my life is still there.

I look at myself now and notice that the girl who left the U.S. a few days ago is a different version of the one who was at the same airport a year earlier.

An exchange student doesn’t realize how much has she has changed until she returns to her country.

It’s not that she doesn’t love her country anymore, or didn’t miss her family and friends. Rather, it’s the feeling that you have two homes now, and you belong to those two places.

Nathaly Gracia Rodríguez on the ice rink at the University of Connecticut. (YJI)

During the exchange year, kids create their own lives. They make it through the entire year by themselves, trying to looking for the good things, and make them their best memories.

They adopt a new culture and try to live like one of the people in their host country.

They are able to go anywhere now because they are ready to respect and appreciate the different opinions and values of people.

Exchange students can easily talk and communicate with others. They have this special sympathy that makes them see things differently than the rest.

Nathaly Gracia Rodríguez addresses the Glastonbury, Connecticut Rotary Club about her experiences as an exchange student. (YJI)

During my exchange year, I changed from a shy girl to an outgoing girl who could express how I was feeling, who could join the track team even if I had never practiced any sport before.

I discovered I could make friends by myself. I could talk to people and make feel them feel better. I could give someone a hug whether they were a friend or not, because that person needed one.

I was challenged to try new things, and made my own decision to do it.

And now because of my exchange year, I have so many great memories.

E.O. Smith High School girls display their prom corsages. From left, Meghan Powers, Katie Puza, Codi Bierce, Cassie Schmitt, Jess Li, Nathaly Gracia Rodriguez, Linde Thatcher, Claire Coffey and Vanessa Lusa. (YJI)

I went to the prom, enjoy playing on a team and know what it is to be part of one.

I met new people and gave them a chance to be my friends.

I tasted new foods, visited new cities and – the best of part of my journey – traveled to the West Coast with 83 more exchange students.

Being an exchange student is amazing. It is the best decision you can make.

It changes your life and makes it possible for you to move forward on your own. It changes your life, and afterward, you will be able to move forward on your own.

Exchange life forever!

Nathaly Gracia Rodríguez is a Junior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

Nathaly Gracia Rodríguez with her American host family on her graduation day from E. O. Smith High School in Storrs, Connecticut: James Lusa, Vanessa Lusa, Jennifer Lusa and Devonne Lusa. (YJI)