José Carlos Gomez Lobo loved the idea of joining students from his high school in Colombia for two weeks in Gainesville. But then his father shot it down. No way their family could afford it.
“I was not supposed to be here,” José, 16, said as he sat in a classroom at Eastside High School.
The boy’s teachers back home donated money and helped him fundraise to make the trip happen.
He and 12 other students from two high schools in Montería spent the last two weeks in Gainesville – over 2,000 miles from their country. The experience has been a whirlwind. They left Colombia on Sept. 27 and flew into Miami. They arrived in Gainesville by bus, just in time to chomp with 80,000 fans at the Florida vs. Towson game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“It was my first time at a game like football, so it was amazing for me,” said Karen Mejía, 15, a 10th grader at Antonia Santos High School. “In Colombia, we like soccer, and it’s very different.”
The students also met with Mayor Lauren Poe and other city officials. They experienced nature at Silver Springs State Park and the Florida Museum of Natural History. And, with visits to Sante Fe College and the University of Florida, they maybe saw their future after high school.
“It has been a really, really nice experience,” said José, an 11th grader at Antonia Santos.
María Zelaya, a Spanish teacher at Eastside, organized the trip so the Colombians could learn about U.S. culture, practice English in this country and gain international connections.
Zelaya, 42, did a yearlong program in 2016 called The Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Program. According to its website, the program helps teachers learn better to prepare students for a competitive global economy. It led Zelaya to spend three weeks in Colombia, where she met Yanilis Romero, 38, an English teacher at Antonia Santos.
The two have worked together since to give their students cultural experiences. In 2017, Romero took eight students to Reno, Nevada. In 2018, Zelaya helped bring 11 students from the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador to Gainesville for a weeklong community service event.
“I want my kids to see how useful it is to know another language,” Zelaya said. “That was my intention, trying to bring this idea of global education into my curriculum.”
Planning for the trip from Colombia began in January. Over 40 ninth- to 11th-grade students at Antonia Santos and José María Córdoba High Schools there expressed interest. The 13 chosen earned their way based on grades, English language proficiency, good behavior and fundraising: “Selling cookies and ice cream, tamales and chocolate – whatever they could,” Zelaya said.
To get to Florida, students had to purchase plane tickets, get an international visa and buy medical insurance. Plane tickets alone were roughly $700, with total expenses over $1,000.
Danela Castillo, 15, said she came on the trip for the opportunities it offered. The 10th grader wants to study international business in the future, so understanding U.S. culture is important.
“It’s a dream for me,” she said.
Each of the students stayed with an Eastside High family who volunteered to host them.
“They are so cute,” Karen said of her host family. “The mom of my house told me that I could call her mom, too. It’s very, very beautiful.”
Karen’s host sister, 11th-grader Gil Abend-David, 16, was eager to have a Colombian student stay at her home. She said learning about another culture and lifestyle has enriched her life.
The stay wasn’t without its challenges, though, especially with the language difference. Sure, Gil had a chance to practice her Spanish, and Karen to practice her English. But Gil said going from being an only child to having to share a room with Karen taught her about communication.
“It’s a whole other person in your house, like, who knew?” Gil said.
During a visit to UF, the Colombians met with Bianca Quiñones, the program director for Hispanic-Latinx affairs, and members of PorColombia, a student association.
PorColombia president María Grosso, 23, said the visiting students learned about academic majors at UF, college financing and what it’s like attending a university far from home.
“They were excited and bright-eyed,” said Grosso, a senior digital arts and sciences major from Wellington, who was born in Bogotá, Colombia. “It was like seeing themselves but a few years in the future.”
The Colombian students will leave Gainesville on Saturday for Orlando to visit Universal Studios and other attractions in the area. They will fly back to their country on Tuesday.
Kevin Sierra, 26, a visiting teacher from José María Córdoba, said his students have told him they think at night: “I can’t believe I’m in the U.S. This is a myth that we have broken.”
Asked what would be her students’ biggest takeaway, Romero didn’t hesitate: “Hope.”
Below: WUFT-TV’s Kyrin Mayfield produced the below video story about the students’ visit.
Above: watch a version of this story that aired on WUFT-TV.