Guardian Stories

Mexico

SLP 2010
Craig Stoops
San Luis Potosi, Mexico

One of the first things she said to us upon our arrival in SLP was "I'm not ready to go home yet." She proceeded to take us on an extensive walking tour of all her haunts throughout the city.

I remember as if it were yesterday. Sarah came home from school in September, 2009, and said, "Mr. Goodwin (her Spanish teacher) says that I should apply to IUHPFL. He says that his participation in the program changed his life. Just because I want to apply doesn't mean that I'll be going. There are tests and interviews, and I can back out at any time. I have a DVD that will acquaint you with the program."

The DVD confirmed our worst fears. Sarah would be gone in a land far away living with total strangers for seven weeks. Her contact with us would be limited to an initial phone call and at best a weekly email. "When push comes to shove," I reassured myself, "Sarah will never agree to do this." After all, she had been raised as an only child and had been away from us for only one week. That was a disastrous experience at summer camp when she was ten.

Life went on through the fall and winter of her junior year. Sarah took the test. I knew that she would do well, but I wasn't overly concerned. Even she was quick to admit that she might lack the maturity necessary to sever the umbilical cord. "You WILL be homesick," I counseled in a stern fatherly voice.

As the winter progressed, I noted a subtle change. While I continued to talk about IUHPFL in hypotheticals, Sarah and her mom spoke very positively about her participation in the program. It became a foregone conclusion that Sarah, if accepted, would attend. While I supported Sarah's decision, I demurred, "At the end of the summer, one of your parents will be proven right and the other wrong. I hope I am wrong."

On the one hand, I realized that IUHPFL could provide real opportunities for Sarah to build self-confidence and excel in interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, Sarah's teachers have always described her as a "quiet" student. I was afraid that she could easily become lost in the shuffle.

The next hurdle we faced as a family was Sarah's assignment to San Luis Potosi, Mexico (SLP). The national news was full of ghastly stories about the drug wars in Mexico. All three of us decided that we would "demand" that Sarah be sent to Spain, because Mexico simply was not safe.

Stephanie and her colleagues countered our arguments with the facts. All the drug violence is along the border. Independent figures show SLP's crime rate similar to Evansville, Vincennes, Bloomington, and West Lafayette. This crime rate is far lower than that of Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Louisville. Furthermore, SLP is the oldest program in IUHPFL; students have gone there for over forty years. The local coordinators in SLP are part of a family that has been involved with IUHPFL for over twenty years. They have a proven track record of interviewing and procuring excellent host families.  We also learned that Mexicans are very family oriented and welcome these midwestern kids with open arms. Stephanie assured us that she had just visited SLP, found it to be a charming city with the feel of a small town, and would not hesitate to return with her baby in tow. She stressed that many factors played into Sarah's assignment to SLP. She forcefully concluded her email, "Never have I read an evaluation from a SLP participant that has said 'I wish I would have spent my summer in Spain.'"

As the day of departure approached, we felt the usual parental concerns. Would Sarah integrate well with the group and the teachers? Would she be compatible with her family?  Would their "outside" dog bother her allergies?

We tracked the flights to SLP and were overjoyed to receive Stephen's first blog entry with a photo of smiling adventurous students. Sarah's first very upbeat email arrived a day later. Then some problems developed. The "outside" dog actually lived inside and triggered her asthma. We phoned Leslie, the parent-student liaison. She monitored the situation and talked frequently with Sarah. Sarah and Leslie together deemed that a change was necessary. Leslie kept us fully informed by phone and email. We realized that Sarah was making responsible decisions. We always felt in touch because of our links to Leslie. Additional peace of mind came from knowing that Stephanie carried a dedicated cell phone 24/7.

The move to a new host family worked in everyone's best interest. Although Sarah's emails were less frequent than we might have liked, they were consistently upbeat.

I love only speaking Spanish. This has been my dream for so long, and they say that I speak super well.

I like having brothers and a younger sister, which really surprises me. I feel like a real part of the family. My siblings and I make fun of each other a lot, which I suppose can be considered a sign of brotherly or sisterly love. I´m quite skilled at "fighting" with my siblings in fast, Mexican Spanish. It also surprises me that I get along best with my 21-year-old brother Rolo. Imagine me with other siblings! 

Dad, thank you so much for letting me come to Mexico and have this opportunity. It has been truly amazing so far, and I have discovered a lot about myself that I didn´t know previously.

I´m sorry to tell you that I´m not coming home with you to the States. Mamá says that my name is now Sarah Sánchez López and that I´m staying here. My sister Isabel will be going in my place. I realized this week why I love the Mexicans so much.

You have no idea how difficult it has been to write this email. Everything comes to me first in Spanish, and I have to translate. I suppose that´s a good thing.

In some ways, time has flown. In other ways, it feels like I´ve been here for a lot longer than 6 weeks. I´m looking forward to seeing you, too. I have so many stories to tell you.

We also eagerly awaited Stephen's blog entries and especially the group photos. They followed every major group event and make a nice permanent record of the experience.

One of the highlights of the summer for Sarah was a two-day visit by her Spanish teacher from Covenant Christian High School. Mr. Goodwin came by bus to SLP from a nearby location, met Sarah and another student at Starbucks, and had dinner with Sarah's family. Mr. Goodwin is an alumnus of the program in SLP. They visited his old school and met his director. Sarah took great pride in introducing Mr. Goodwin to her family. This meeting closed the loop between her favorite teacher who recommended IUHPFL and her Mexican family whom she loves so much.

As soon as Sarah was accepted into the program, we said that we would like to visit her and meet her family. We were encouraged to visit at the conclusion of the program and accompany her home. One of the first things she said to us upon our arrival in SLP was "I'm not ready to go home yet." She proceeded to take us on an extensive walking tour of all her haunts throughout the city. For the first few hours, her English was not the greatest as she struggled to relay stories and events from the previous six weeks. So in terms of immersion, I had to say, "Mission accomplished."

Sarah also continued to stay with her host family instead of going to the Westin with us. For her, they were by far the most important part of the program. She refers to them as her brothers and sister and "Mamá." During her stay, she skipped some of the optional activities with the group just because she wanted to maximize her time in Mexico with Mexicans. She spent her last evening in SLP with her family, coming dejectedly to our hotel room around midnight. I asked her if Mamá had driven her to the hotel. "No," she sobbed, "They ALL came." 

Sarah's family loves her dearly and continues to facebook with her daily. She is anxious to visit them over spring break. I also detect some jealousy and sadness when she laments that soon there will be another student staying with "her" family and sleeping in "her" room. Mamá reassures her that no one will ever replace Sarah.

Sarah came home from SLP a changed person. She realizes that she has mastered conversational Spanish and Mexican slang. She often dreams in Spanish and watches Spanish television. I always say that there is a difference between "speaking" a language and "knowing" a language; Sarah now knows Spanish. The field trips and family events taught her about Mexican culture. In fact, she plans to do her senior thesis (in Spanish) on the Mexican muralists. Looking back on her summer in Mexico with great satisfaction, Sarah said, "I feel that I am a better person because I worked tirelessly and excelled at the hardest thing I've ever done. It is also the BEST thing I've ever done."

Sarah's participation in IUHPFL has streamlined the college application process. While she has always dreamed of doing research in cancer or Alzheimer's disease, she realizes that her passions are Spanish and study abroad.The College of Arts and Sciences at IU is a perfect fit for her. There she can double major in biochemistry and Spanish with almost unlimited opportunities for foreign study.

Our expectations as parents from IUHPFL were fully realized. First and foremost, Sarah survived! She gained self-confidence and became more introspective. She made lasting friendships, both Mexican and American. The devoted faculty and her Mexican family monitored her both emotionally and physically. She has formulated a plan of action for the next four years.

So what is our advice to parents considering IUHPFL? Just do it! Trust the selection process and the assignment committee. These people know every applicant in detail and will make the very best decisions for every student. Your child will have a great summer while being shepherded by the faculty and the local family. Expect your great kid to come home an ever greater young adult.