I spent an entire summer in Cuenca, Ecuador with American Field Service. It was after my senior year of high school and before I went off to college. While all of my high school friends were enjoying a typical American summer of drive-ins and theme parks, saying teary good-bye to their besties from high school, I was in “The Land of Eternal Springtime”, which is what the Cuencans call their beautiful colonial town.
Cuenca was not nearly as developed back then as it is now, and the town was fascinating. The architecture, the culture, the people….it was all so engaging. AFS did a fantastic job in our pre-orientaion in Miami with thousands of students going to South America for the summer. After our pre-orientation, we flew to Quito and had an in-country orientating for a few days. Quito was also fascinating and Cuenca is similar on a smaller scale.
Mid-way through the summer, AFS arranged an in-country exchange where the students who lived in the mountains (as we did in Cuenca) traveled and lived on the ocean and vice versa. Our group from Cuenca lived in Guayaquil for a week and the diversity from Cuenca was staggering. The mid-stay exchange gave a wonderful contrast to what we were used to.
Whilst in Cuenca, AFS arranged activities on almost a weekly basis. Even though it was winter in Cuenca, we still were not in school and the students had a tremendous amount of free time. We were quite autonomous but the weekly or bi-monthly activities kept us in touch with the group.
The family I stayed with was wonderful and the lessons I learned about myself living there were in valuable. While no one can repeat the individual experience of an AFS aboard program, we all share the basic outcomes of knowing ourselves better, having our mettle tested, and growing up in ways that our high school friends back home will never have. So typical of this is that I could not relate to my high school best friends after being gone for a mere 2 ½ months. Even to this day, many years later, I remain iconoclast in relation to the old high school gang. In my adulthood I have not been afraid to move to a different city, take a distant job, re-invent myself. By contrast, all of my high school friends still live in the same town. While there is nothing wrong with that, it just isn’t me.
What you learn from an AFS experience is that no one can take you away from yourself and you are able to live life on your own terms. That is how l have lived my life since living abroad for the first time when I was 18 with AFS. Since then I have lived aboard again, have traveled extensively both internationally and domestically, and have lived in some of the most exciting cities in the US. I run my won successful business and know that I am not afraid of anyone or anything. That is how I have raised my family and live my life. If I never would have gone abroad with AFS at 18, I perish the thought that I would still be livng in the same small town in which I grew up. AFS gave me the opportunity to expand my own mind, spirit, and self, and the rest of my life was built on that experience. I will always be grateful for AFS for accepting me into their program.