From Colombia to Austin

Published 10:31 am Monday, December 22, 2014

Ana Maria Osorio Marin, from left, Daniela Hervera Cardona, Natalia Restrepo Munoz, Paulina Ramirez, Esterania Naranjo and Sara Restrepo Alvarez will soon return to their own school in Colombia, South America. All of them attended Pacelli this semester.  Eric Johnson/

Ana Maria Osorio Marin, from left, Daniela Hervera Cardona, Natalia Restrepo Munoz, Paulina Ramirez, Esterania Naranjo and Sara Restrepo Alvarez will soon return to their own school in Colombia, South America. All of them attended Pacelli this semester. Eric Johnson/

Foreign exchange students say semester was ‘the best experience’

Pacelli Catholic Schools has hosted foreign exchange students for eight years, but the school never had six students from the same school come at once before — until this year.

Pacelli hosted six girls from Comunidad Colegio Jesús Maria, an all-girls Catholic School in Colombia, for the 2014-2015 first semester. The school plans to host another large group or foreign exchange students during the second semester.

“It was an opportunity to see how a big group would do,” International Student Facilitator Catalina Ferreira-Truong said.

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Ferreira-Truong works with both Pacelli and Austin Public Schools with foreign exchange students. She was excited to have the group come to Pacelli, and she was glad to see the students still thrived, made new friends and had many new experiences.

“They have made many friends; they have done well in the school; they learned the language too; they improved it,” Ferreira-Truong said. “They are more confident of themselves. They look at the opportunity to go to college here, and they are already talking about maybe to return as a college student.”

Because Ferreira-Truong is originally from Colombia, she has strong ties with some of the schools there. That is one of the reasons the school felt comfortable with sending a large group instead of a single student.

“The parents feel comfortable talking to me in Spanish too, if they feel that they need to communicate with me in Spanish,” Ferreira-Truong said.

Estefania Naranjo, one of the six girls from Colombia, was very excited for the opportunity to study abroad in America, although she didn’t always feel that way.

“Since I was like, 14 years old, I was really [nervous] about going somewhere because I am very close to my family,” Estefania said. “So I want to try something new, and in my school a lot of girls talk about this, like Pacelli.”

Friends who had gone to Pacelli before Estefania spoke about the nice people and the friendships they formed, which made her want to experience it for herself. Though Estefania had high expectations for Pacelli the experience has been better than she thought.

“Everywhere is super charming and warm and I love it,” she said with a large smile.

She was surprised at how different the two countries are when it comes to education. At Pacelli, she was able to choose which classes she wants each semester, where in Colombia she takes the same classes the entire year.

The girls leave in January so they can start their next school year in Colombia right away. At their school, the school year runs from January to November. To get into the exchange student program, students had to finish their schooling early in Colombia to start school in America by September. Estefania said going home will be bittersweet, as she misses her family but will be sad to leave her host family and friends as well.

“I’m going to miss my host family, like, a lot, and all the people in Pacelli, because it’s a pretty small school and everybody knows each other,” she said.

Exchange student Sara Restrepo also said she is also going to miss the people she got to know while studying at Pacelli.

“Everything I will miss because here you get used to do the things you don’t do,” Restrepo said.

She pointed out some of the small things she will miss, like going to school at 8 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. She came to Pacelli to further her education, gain more experience and become more independent.

“I chose this because I know that this will be really helpful to my future,” Sara said.

She hopes to come back to the U.S. to enroll in college, and she wants to study cardiology, although she is leaving time to figure out if that is the best path. She is considering taking classes at Winona State University.

“I need … the time pass and know what I want for my future, because I’m really young in this moment,” she said.

Both Sara and Estefania have Spanish as their first language, but they’ve been working on English since they were young.

“I thought that English was really easy but when I came here it was really hard for me,” Sara said.

After she got used to the different schedules — the way teachers expect homework and other adjustments — Sara started to feel like a Pacelli student. She credited her host mom for helping her during those first few weeks: She helped with homework, helped when Sara felt depressed or needed to talk, and helped her settle in. Sara said she has learned a lot more than just academics studying abroad.

“I’m more mature and that is the biggest experience that I learned here,” she said.

She added, “Responsibility, that is a thing that I never thought that I would learn here.”

Because of the positive results from this group of girls coming to Pacelli, Ferreira-Truong foresees more large groups in the future.

“For us, the kids learn from them,” Ferreira-Truong said. “They interact with everybody; they’re kind of part of the big family at Pacelli.”

Sara said anyone who wants to study in another country shouldn’t be scared. It’s worth the risk.

“Don’t be scared; it’s OK,” She said. “And it helps to grow up, and it’s the best experience you can have in your life.”