By Olivia Cooper
In the house where I spent two months last summer in Buenos Aires, Argentina, there was no heating. In South America, our summer is their winter, and I’ve only dealt with California winters before, where I can wear tank tops and shorts and bring a sweater if it gets chilly.
The cold in Argentina required jackets and scarves, and I had to borrow clothes to stay warm, or sit by the stove fireplace in the house where I stayed. Little lessons like this can change everything about how you look at the world, and at your own life, and that’s exactly why I wanted to study abroad.
I feel like every teen should travel somewhere new and stay for a few months. You learn so much in just the first month. And then you realize there are so many little things that don’t matter, you have to focus on the big things. You start to appreciate everybody when you are away from parents, friends, siblings. You appreciate little things like your bed and the comforts of home.
I wanted to study abroad because I felt I needed to find myself. It was hard for me to keep my own personality around peers with even bigger personalities. I wanted to be independent. I created my own exchange program by reaching out to Waldorf schools in other countries and exploring the options – and with the help of our school counselor, Janis Walters.
I attended Davis Waldorf School from 2nd through 8th grade and came to Sacramento Waldorf School for high school. I wanted to immerse in a Spanish-speaking environment and thought I knew enough to have conversations, but when I landed in Argentina, I realized I barely knew anything.
Just creating my exchange program was a lesson in independence. I emailed Waldorf schools throughout South America and waited for people to reply. The schools also confirmed that the families I considered were good families.
The family I stayed with has twin daughters, and one of the twins is coming to be our exchange student this school year. Their culture was wildly different from ours. Traditional, passionate, loving, constant kisses and hugs. Everyone wanted to be my friend.
I went to school, since it was their winter, but we traveled, too. I got to know the city of Buenos Aires really well and we visited Iguazu Falls, at the border of Paraguay and Brazil, which was breathtaking. We saw monkeys and birds, who were not afraid of humans; it was like we were all one.
The language was interesting. I learned so much Spanish but even more, I learned to understand the intention behind the language. There are words for which there is no direct translation; you just have to understand the meaning.
I also learned a new way to learn, one-on-one, through interaction rather than textbook or worksheet. I understand the language now, and I understand that in every language you can learn, there are concepts for which there is no direct translation.
During my travels, I learned so much about myself. How to choose the people I spend my time with. I realized the people that really help you in life, who will always be there, are the ones I need to choose as my priority.
I realized how important my relationships with my brother and my parents are. Being on your own, not knowing anybody, you start to realize what truly matters – and what doesn’t.
Which brings me to another important lesson: to just not care that much. When people have an opinion about you, it does not mean anything unless they really know you. My exchange taught me so much. If someone was talking about her, she was like, “Oh, don’t listen to them. They’re not the people I trust.” She was right. In Argentina, people were so nice to me. They had a huge mindset to love others first and foremost.
I learned more in my two and a half months in Argentina than in my whole life before that. For an experience like this, you just have to take a leap into it. I was hesitant – even en route to Argentina, I had second-thoughts and was about to turn back.
I’m so glad I didn’t. Being open to others and to possibilities is the best way to learn who you are, and who you want to be.
Olivia Cooper is a 17-year-old junior at Sacramento Waldorf High School.