Senior Jillian Lopez reflects on exchange in Chile


Senior Jillian Lopez went to Chile for her junior year and has returned back to Foothill. Credit: Kazu Koba/The Foothill Dragon Press

Kienna Kulzer


Senior Jillian Lopez went to Chile for her junior year and has returned back to Foothill. Credit: Kazu Koba/The Foothill Dragon Press
Senior Jillian Lopez went to Chile for her junior year and has returned back to Foothill. Credit: Kazu Koba/The Foothill Dragon Press

Stepping off a plane by herself into a foreign country and navigating through customs in Spanish is not the way most Foothill students begin their junior year, but for Jillian Lopez, the circumstances were a bit different. She was beginning her ten month long exchange in Rancagua, Chile.

 “It all just kind of felt like a dream, like it wasn’t really happening,” she said.

 Lopez had wanted to go on an exchange through the Rotary program since she was in eighth grade, when her cousin returned from an exchange with the program and told her about it.

 The entire application process took her about a year. Once she was accepted, she gave them a list of her five top countries, which were Argentina, Italy, Spain, Chile, and Uruguay. The program then chose her destination based on her personality, her interview, and where there were open spots. She was sent to Rancagua, a small town in Central Chile, just an hour south from the capital Santiago.

 When her parents dropped her off at the airport, her father, Chris Lopez, said it was difficult to say goodbye.

 “It was a combination of emotions. Excitement, fear, worry, all at the same time,” he said.

 Although she had taken two years of Spanish at Foothill, Lopez said she was still a little nervous about speaking.

 “I knew some basic verbs and vocabulary, but I didn’t know that much, so especially when I was landing in Chile and I heard Spanish all around me, I started to get a little worried,” she said.  “But I knew that it was normal on exchange to learn and to be like a little bit not fluent at first, so I wasn’t that worried.”

 Spanish teacher Kathy Leaf, who had Lopez for Spanish 1  her freshman year, said that while learning Spanish in a classroom is important, immersion is the key to really mastering it.

 “Immersion in class doesn’t work; immersion in the world does,” she said. “The absolute best way to learn a language is to be surrounded by that language.”

 Once she was in Chile, Lopez’s Spanish improved quickly. Along with being immersed in the language out in the community, she was also surrounded by it at home with her host family, who did not speak any English.

 When she had her first dream in Spanish three months into her stay, she knew that she was becoming close to being fluent.

 “I would think in Spanish and it would come really naturally to just respond in Spanish for me,” Lopez said. “But I think that I realized that I was really well off in Spanish when I would talk to someone in English and all of a sudden I’d just be speaking Spanish and they’d be like, ‘What are you saying?’”

 Her host family helped her with her Spanish, and were in general very loving and supportive. They had a six-year-old son and a daughter one year older than Lopez, who was in Pennsylvania on exchange for most of the time that Lopez was there in Chile.

 “They were a lot more family-oriented and wanted to spend time with me and take me to all these places I’ve never seen before,” she said. “They just wanted to make sure that I had the best experience possible and they welcomed me into their family like I was their daughter, and by the end of my exchange, I felt like I was part of their family.”

 Aside from the language, there were many differences she noticed between the United States and Chile while she was there.

 “There are rich parts of Chile, but not everyone is really wealthy, so it was really good to see the difference in the culture and the classes, but it also made me thankful for a lot of the things I didn’t have while I was there, which was awesome.”

Despite some economic hardships, she said that most people there were very happy and full of life.

“Their culture is a lot more open and generous and they are the life of the party. They love to have a good time all day and all night,” she said.

 Now that she is back in California, she misses Chile and the people that she met there. She is a senior this year at Foothill and will graduate with the class of 2014.

Next year she plans to go on to college, where she would like to major in business with a minor in foreign languages.

 “I encourage anyone that can to go on exchange, even in college, or a gap year, because it honestly gives you so much opportunity in your life and it’s an amazing experience,” Lopez said. “Going on exchange was the best decision I’ve ever made and it has changed me in so many ways that I can’t even put into words. I’m so glad that I did it.”

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