From language skills to overcoming preconceptions
As soon as 15-year-old Hannah Dreisbach learned she’d be traveling to Brazil as part of the Rotary Club Youth Exchange Program, she knew she wanted to hold a sloth. But first, she had to learn how to say sloth in Portuguese—it’s “preguiça”—one in a stream of vocabulary words Hannah is acquiring as she prepares with her family for the year-long experience.
Hannah said Brazil did not top her list of places she hoped to study abroad. But as she’s learned more about the country and its culture, she’s come around to the idea.
Hannah was inspired by her friend Chambers Moline, who last year was the first Big Sky student to take part in the Rotary exchange program. When the opportunity arose again in September 2017, Hannah signed on. Piles of application paperwork later, she and her family were preparing in late July for the adventure to begin in early or mid-August.
Hannah will live in the state of Santa Catarina in a small town called Jaraguá do Sul, an hour away from Brazil’s Atlantic Coast.
She’ll be jumping head-first into second semester as a freshman, or first grade of high school, as it’s called in Brazil. After some Brazilian summer travel (during Big Sky’s winter), she’ll return to the school as a sophomore, heading back home to Montana in June 2019. In all, she’ll have three host families along the way.
Traditionally, exchange students study abroad later in high school, but with the Lone Peak High International Baccalaureate track, students must attend LPH junior and senior years to be successful in the accelerated learning program.
Starting as a freshman will be helpful for her, since she’s just now learning Portuguese.
“Which is kind of weird, it’s Brazilian Portuguese, so it’s not anything really like regular Portuguese. It’s slightly different,” Hannah said. She’s in the midst of an online crash course in the language, tutored by someone from the country. “It’s a little different than most courses, because I am leaving in just a few weeks, so it’s been challenging, but good.”
While she’s known she’ll be heading to Brazil for months, Hannah said it’s just recently that excitement about the trip has surpassed the anxiety she’d been feeling about it.
“I think of Brazil, and I think, ‘This will be so cool, I really want to go to this place,’ and I’ve heard that the people are really nice. I’m excited to meet my host family,” Hannah said. “And then I think of the reality of it. I don’t know what I’ll say to my host family when they first meet me, since they don’t speak much English, so I know it’s going to be tough. But I hear that it’s all worth it in the end.”
The year-long experience will be about more than learning a language and attending school. Hannah also looks forward to the extracurricular activities she can embark upon—like experiencing Machu Picchu and the Amazon River. She’s familiar with rafting, “But I will not be swimming in those waters,” she said, grinning. “I saw a picture of 15 or so kids lined up holding a giant anaconda, and I was like, ‘Yeah right!’”
Hannah’s mother Joanie said she’s going to miss her oldest daughter, but recognizes the value of learning abroad. On a ski trip to Japan this winter, Joanie felt out of her comfort zone, but it made her realize the value of those kinds of experiences.
“Big Sky is awesome, but I’m liking the fact that she’s going to see something else,” Joanie said, while little Brazilian flags from a recent going away party fluttered in the breeze. “It’s nice for her to go out and see more. Am I excited? Yes. Am I nervous and scared? Yes. But if anybody can do this, I think she can.”
Even though exchange policy states students should refrain from frequent contact with their family back home, Joanne said she told Hannah she’d better at least communicate a thumbs up every so often.
Hannah’s friend Chambers Moline just returned to Big Sky after a year studying abroad in Austria, and has been happy to offer her advice on the experience and to talk to others about the educational trip. Chambers spent her year in the Alps in and around a small village called Schruns. While she’ll look back at her time in an Austrian school fondly, it’s the other experiences of the program that came to mind first.
“I got to go to ski resorts, which was awesome, and my first family traveled around a lot,” Moline recalled. After an intense language and culture camp, which took up the first two weeks of her stay, Chambers joined her host parents on a trip to Italy. “It was just trip after trip. I was lucky.”
As for school, “It was hard, just because of the language, the dialect was really hard where I lived. It’s Austrian German mixed with old German mixed with Swiss German,” she said. “It’s like moving to America and learning Australian dialect—it was fun, but I never truly mastered it.”
Hoping to keep up with her German studies, Chambers said she’s stayed in contact with her host families and friends and also reads articles and excerpts from books in German.
Like Hannah, Chambers said she was both nervous and excited going into the program as her departure date closed in.
“And it didn’t even really hit me until I was there. I was just thinking, ‘This is going to be really awesome! I know absolutely nothing about where I am going to live. I know absolutely nothing about my host family, or even Austria. But this is going to be awesome!’” she said. “And I guess because I didn’t do too much research I didn’t have any expectations. The first night was tough, but the rest was awesome.”
Chambers said she hopes more Big Sky students take advantage of the program.
“A lot of students just don’t really know about it, and I’m hoping as the first one in Big Sky to complete the program, I can help get more people interested,” she said. “So, I was glad to hear Hannah had signed up, because eventually and hopefully it will grow and become more of a thing.”
She just got back to Big Sky, but Chambers is already looking forward to returning to Austria. It was tough for her to leave, since her host family had sheep, and they just delivered babies.
“I could have stayed longer,” she said. Once she’s done with high school, Chambers plans to take her parents to Austria to experience the people and places she came to love.