Hi everyone! I just want to start out saying how crazy this whole experience has been for me. Nine months ago, I waved goodbye to my friends and family at the airport in Florida and traveled halfway across the world to a country I knew very little about, with very little expectations for what the next year would have in store for me. Adjusting to a completely different way of life has opened my eyes to the world and what’s really out there. Back in Florida I lived in a little bubble, my cookie cutter town, supportive family, I went to an amazing high school; I was getting a little too comfortable with my life there. So, I decided there was nothing I needed more than to get completely out of that comfort zone…and that’s exactly what I did.
I had seen the same Rotary presentation in my school auditorium the two years before, past exchange students standing at the front of the room in their crazy blazers talking about how exchange changed their lives and they would do anything to have the experience again. I thought it was crazy, why would they do that? Why leave everything they know for a year and live in a different country with strangers? But something changed that third time I sat in the audience and heard them speak. I instantly knew I needed to do that, that was the change I needed in my life, and I would do everything in my power to make it happen for me. And that I did.
The number one question I get from everyone here is, “Why Slovakia?” … and honestly, I have no clue. Going through all the paperwork, interviews, meetings, and orientations the months before I arrived here, I had to put all my confidence in Rotary to help me prepare; mentally, physically, and in every aspect they were amazing, I am so grateful for the support system I have at all times. Near the beginning of the process, we were supposed list the top five countries we would want to go to, nothing was promised, but this would help the program place us. Do you want to know where my countries were? South America. So, when I say I have no clue what happened, I have no clue. Of course, it was a surprise when they handed me the Slovak flag in front of a room full of almost 100 people, and I was supposed to announce this country I was about to spend a year in, even though I had never seen the flag before. Embarrassing to say the least, but a good story now. And now, more than a year after that initial announcement, I’m so glad I ended up here.
And of course, things have been tough, this is in no way a vacation like some people think. Trying to learn a new language has been extremely difficult (especially because it’s Slovak…), having to adjust to a different culture and foods and people, all the while being thousands of miles away from my family. But I am so much stronger because of all of this. I am so extremely proud to say that I succeeded. I have made lifelong friends, amazing connections with the three families that took me in as their own, I can now communicate in Slovak, I have traveled so much around this beautiful country, I understand its culture and traditions, I have really learned a lot.
And lastly, because I am writing this article for bilgym, I want to tell you a little bit about my time here: I remember my first day of school like it was yesterday. Shane showed us around and then walked Juan and I into my homeroom class, where I saw the faces of 3.B for the first time, people I’d get to know over the next couple months….it took me so long to remember everyone’s names. I remember being so confused hearing everyone speaking English with Sierra because I was really expecting my whole school experience to be completely in Slovak…I had no idea this was a bilingual school. Then the whole school gathered together for some presentation in Slovak, that they gave me a translation device for, and a couple of kids got up and sang Billie Eilish… and the day was over. Very strange for me coming from the US with a school of 1200 kids, where we would NEVER be allowed to leave the school before 15:45, no matter what day. I enjoy the level of freedom we were given at the school, being able to just walk out the doors for breaks and walk down to Terno to get snacks.
I’m glad I was given the opportunity to choose some classes so I didn’t have to experience the full course load everyone else has, that would have been too much to handle on top of everything else I was experiencing. I am so impressed at how smart everyone at bilgym is, I am struggling to follow along in biology and it’s in my native language…and they’re taking it in a foreign language, I can’t imagine. And it was fun to take some classes completely in Slovak, math for example- I learned a lot of random words and could see my progression throughout the year of how much more I understand.
Some of my favorite memories have been made at the café in the school, hanging out with my friends, drinking tea, eating brownies. I am thankful that I had a couple months to experience the sense of community built at bilgym, it is different during quarantine, but I know the community is still there. Bilgym offered me a lot; the mentoring program with Sierra, the cooking and dancing and tea clubs, the WICKs that šimon translated for us (thank you!!), and overall, the opportunity to connect with more people.
Lastly, I wanted to thank the person at bilgym that has made the biggest impact on my life, Paulina. You are an amazing teacher and just overall great person. We looked forward to your class every week, it was the best part of going to school, and we miss you so much! I thank so much of my language acquisition of Slovak to her, thank you so much for your patience and motivation to help me learn.
I know this only gave a tiny insight into my exchange in Slovakia and time at bilgym, I could write pages more, but I hope you enjoyed the read.
Marley McCauley, May 2020