January 25, 2007

Exchange Student Feels at Home 2,700 Miles From Her Native Ecuador

Education has brought Elisa Cardenas more than 2,700 miles from her home in Ecuador to Memphis, Missouri, and it is a continued education that fuels the young woman’s dream of maintaining that distance from home for just a few more years.

Cardenas came to the United States as part of an international student exchange program. International Cultural Exchange Services (ICE) brought Elisa to Scotland County R-I High School for a year of study following her graduation from high school in her home country.

The student calls Riobamba home. The city of 120,000 is located four hours south of the South American country’s capital of Quito. Ecuador, the Spanish word for equator, is located on the Pacific Ocean and is bordered on the north by Columbia and on the south and east by Peru.

Elisa said her hometown is located in a valley of the Andes Mountains, and despite being located near the equator, the climate is not tropical, but rather cool.

She started the process of coming to America more than a year ago after her sister pushed her to further her education goals. Her sibling had spent a couple months in the United States and was determined that her sister should follow in her footsteps.

Cardenas’ dream of becoming a genetic engineer made the trip a necessity.

“Most of the research and the training in this field is in English, so I must learn the language to be able to study for my career,” she said.

What better way to learn the language than to immerse yourself in it for a year.

That is exactly what Elisa has done. But she may have been questioning that decision early on, as a limited grasp of the language made the transition difficult to begin with.

A little misfortune may have sped up the transition. Elisa used to carry a Spanish-to-English dictionary with her throughout the hallways of the school. But that dictionary was misplaced, forcing the student to learn on the fly.

“It was hard, but being here in the school made me learn quicker,” she said. “I got tired of not understanding what people were saying to me. The teachers were really good to slow down and take extra time for me, but the other students talk to me so fast, that I had to learn quicker so I knew what they were saying to me.”

Elisa said she knew she was mastering the process when she began to have dreams in English.

With an improving grasp of the language Elisa has taken on the challenges of a full schedule of classes and has even found time to serve as a varsity cheerleader for the school, an opportunity she never had back home. Cardenas said her school of nearly 2,000 students had been a boys’ school until just a few years earlier, meaning that programs for girls were still lagging behind.

She is also a member of FBLA and FCCLA. Her class schedule includes Advanced Algebra, World History, Art, Applied Bio Chemistry and of course English.

But with less than a semester left in the school year, Cardenas hasn’t turned her thoughts to returning home, not yet anyway. While she plans on going back home to Ecuador, she dreams of doing so with a college science degree.

Elisa wants to attend Montgomery College in Maryland to study science. She chose the school because of family living in the area.

“My uncle lives there, so I could live with my family and save on tuition and housing,” Elisa said.

Savings are crucial to her as she feels concern that her family will be unable to finance her continued stay in the United States.

Advisor Matt Kliethermes, a science teacher at SCR-I, said Elisa is being “nickel and dimed to death” by the costs of tests and college admission fees. He said an education fund has been set up for Elisa at US Bank where anyone interested in helping the student continue her education can make donations.

Cardenas is confident that her dream will come true. Regardless she says her time in Memphis has been wonderful.

She chose the rural setting because she felt like she was used to her “small town” back home. While she admits Memphis has made her feel more like a city girl, she has truly enjoyed the hospitality of her host family Frank and Brooke Wineinger. She also praised the community for making her feel so welcome, adding that she often has been made to feel like some type of celebrity as people go out of their way to get to know her.

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