Prairie Ridge High School
💼 Exchange Student
⏳ Aug 2022 — Jul 2023
📍 Crystal Lake,
✅ J-1 Visa
Prairie Ridge High School
📍 Crystal Lake,
My name is Constantino Martin, and I am originally from Paraguay. I attended St. Clair Catholic School in Paraguay before doing an exchange year at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake, United States.
Coming to the United States was always a dream of mine, but I faced a small hurdle: I had no knowledge of the English language. This became an issue when applying for exchange programs through AFS, my chosen agency. Initially, I had planned to go to New Zealand because I wanted to learn English, but I struggled to pass the required test. Consequently, I decided to give the United States a try, thinking I had nothing to lose by taking the test. Interestingly, something unexpected happened during the test. The format included a booklet with questions and answer choices, as well as a separate answer sheet for marking the answers. The person before me mistakenly marked all their answers in the booklet instead of using the answer sheet. By observing their answers, I managed to score 48 out of 50. It's quite amusing how this coincidence led me to come to the US. After arriving, I actively started learning English with the help of YouTube videos, movies, TV shows, and reading.
AFS Intercultural Programs is an exchange organization that offers paid exchange programs or scholarships to various destinations. While I'm aware that there are a few countries without an AFS presence, in most countries, AFS operates. I did my exchange through AFS.
People often ask me if my family has to host someone when I go to the US, but it's not about exchanging students — it's about exchanging cultures. So when I come to the US, I get to share my culture with my host family, and in return, I get to experience their culture.
Currently, I am not on a scholarship, as I have found alternative ways to finance my exchange. The application process with AFS is quite straightforward. It begins with registration, followed by the creation of a detailed profile that is then shared with host families across the country. Based on this profile, host families make the selection. It's important to note that during the application process, you only choose the country you wish to go to, and the specific location is determined by the host family's decision. The profile creation involves writing letters or essays introducing yourself and expressing your interests. Additionally, you are required to include an album of photos, academic grades, and a medical profile. Most of this process is done online.
Most exchange programs run from August to June in various countries. In my case, I started the application process in March 2021, and I arrived in the United States in August 2022. However, I must mention that I was the first applicant from Paraguay, so it is not necessary to begin the process as early.
First months in the US
In my first month in the US, as I adjusted to my new life here, I couldn't help but reflect on my background coming from a third-world country with less favorable economic conditions. By the second month, I started missing my home country a lot. It's funny how even small things like savoring a good beef, which is not as popular here, made me miss home. However, as time went on and I reached the six-month mark, I began appreciating the little details, the things my country excels at, and the things the US does better. It's an important shift in perspective because it helps me grow and develop the skills my country needs. That way, when I return, I can apply those skills to make a difference.
What a typical day looks like
I got lucky because, during my second semester, I had the luxury of having the first two periods of school free. Unlike most students who started school at seven, I was able to choose my classes and leave those two periods empty.
So, on a typical day, my day starts with a lifting class, essentially PE. Following that, I attend Spanish class, which is quite amusing because Spanish is my primary language. My logic was that being in a Spanish class meant translating English to Spanish, so that became my way of learning English initially. It turned out to be an amazing class because we not only focused on language but also delved into the cultures of Spanish-speaking countries. It felt like 45 minutes of being back home in the midst of a school day.
Next, I have a speech class, which was a bit of a struggle on my part since my English wasn't that strong. I gradually got the hang of it. After my speech class, I attend a business incubator class, which spans the entire school year. In this class, we work in groups to develop a product and attempt to sell it. The culmination of the school year is a pitch night on the last day of school, where the top six teams compete for a $1,000 prize per group. It was an enjoyable class, and in the first semester, I was part of a group of four. However, when the semester ended, all three of my teammates dropped the class, leaving me alone. I was then assigned to another group, which turned out to be a positive move. Our group created a multi-tool for cleaning cleats after games, and we made it to the pitch night, where we won the $1,000 prize.
Next, it's time for lunch, which I typically have at home since the school is just a five-minute walk away. After lunch, I have my final class of the day, AP Economics. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to choose all my classes, as I had to select from the available options. Ideally, I would have preferred taking more challenging AP classes. Either way, economics was an interesting subject for me, and I had a great teacher who had prior experience working in the Chicago Stock Exchange. So, he had firsthand knowledge of the subject matter.
Living with a host family
In most AFS exchange programs around the world, staying with a host family is the norm. It's basically a random American family who decides, "Hey, I want to welcome a student into my home for a whole year, free of charge."
I am now living with a host family, and they are wonderful. It's a great opportunity to immerse myself in an American family and truly experience life here. I have two host brothers, and my host mom is a single parent. Additionally, now that it's summer, my host grandparents have also joined us.
Getting along with your host family is important, and it can be a challenge for some. However, AFS makes an effort to address any issues that may arise. If necessary, they will work to find an alternative host family that you can switch to. In rare cases, it is possible to return to your home country, although that's not an ideal outcome. Fortunately, I haven't had to face such a situation, but I know others who have.
High school in Paraguay vs. USA
In Paraguay, we follow different schedules for each day of the week. The classes on Monday are not the same as those on Tuesday, for example. However, in the United States, the classes are the same every day and in the same order. I also take fewer classes here compared to Paraguay. In the US, I typically take around six or seven classes, whereas in Paraguay, it's common to have about 17 classes in a year.
I've noticed that education in America is more participatory. You also have the freedom to switch classes, which is different from Paraguay where we typically stay in the same classroom. However, the rotating schedule and the short five-minute breaks between classes can make it easy to get lost and feel rushed.
It's important to note that when you take classes in the US, they may not always count for credit when you return to Paraguay. This varies depending on your school's policies. For example, my friends from Italy who are here have their classes count towards their credits back home. In my case, I missed my second semester of junior year and the first semester of senior year while I was here. To compensate, I had to self-study the entire semester's material and take all the exams a week before leaving for the US. It was a stressful experience because if you lost just one point, your grade could drop from an A to a C. Losing two points would mean not passing the class.
Making friends in USA
In my school here in the US, I happened to be the only exchange student from Paraguay. Other Paraguayans were scattered across different regions of the US.
As for the friends I made through AFS, we had a pre-living camp where I had the chance to meet around 50 AFS exchange students from various countries. However, I've heard that in Italy, there are around 5,000 exchange students each year.
Making friends in the US was a bit strange for me. In Paraguay, if an exchange student came to my school, everyone would be interested in talking to them. I had expected a similar reception when I arrived here. However, after a week, I realized that no one was going to approach me. I had to take the initiative to make my own friends; otherwise, I would end up without any. What really helped me is getting involved in extracurricular activities. I didn't make any friends until I joined clubs like the cross-globe or tech club. Oh, and sports are popular here, which is great because I enjoy sports myself.
Cost of the program
The total cost of my exchange year amounted to $14,000 USD. However, since AFS Paraguay only provides one scholarship per year and does not allow you to choose your destination, I had to find an alternative financial solution. AFS is considered a civil company, which allowed me to approach other companies that needed to pay taxes. It's an interesting arrangement where they could allocate a portion of their tax payments to support my exchange experience. Through this approach, I was able to secure additional financial assistance. Although it didn't cover the entire cost, the remaining amount I had to pay was only around $2,000.
Applying to US universities
After my experience here I decided that I would love to apply to US universities. At the moment, I am working on improving my SAT scores and completing my extracurricular activities. Being here has opened up new possibilities and encouraged me to think outside the box. I have access to opportunities that weren't available to me in Paraguay.
For example, when I arrived, I discovered that my host family has a deep love for lacrosse. My host brother is involved in the sport and excels at it. I ended up joining the lacrosse team as well and developed a passion for it. I then realized that Paraguay is one of the few countries in the world that does not have a lacrosse team. Now, I have a meeting scheduled with the World Lacrosse Federation and the Pan American Lacrosse Federation to discuss the creation of a lacrosse team in Paraguay.
What this experience gave me
This experience has allowed me to build a network of valuable connections. The teachers here hold important positions and have accomplished impressive things in their lives. When I arrived, I created a LinkedIn profile and connected with professionals from the stock exchange and the local business board.
As an AFS exchange student, I've had the chance to meet other students from different countries. It's been amazing to make friends with people from all over the world, except maybe only Antarctica. These friendships mean that wherever I go, I have a friend who can help me out. If I ever visit Europe, for example, I know I can reach out to them for a place to stay or some guidance. It feels great to have friends across the globe who are always there to support me.