In the less than a year that Chilean exchange student Connie Velasquez Pereira has been in the United States, she’s seen more of the country than many lifelong Americans.
Just in North Carolina she’s been to Wilmington, the Outer Banks, Asheville, Grandfather Mountain and Pisgah National Forest. She’s been to Houston for the Final Four. She’s been to New York City; Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Walt Disney World.
The Final Four trip was her favorite. “It was my first time looking at basketball,” she said.
She was pulling for the UNC team, especially since she was there with a Carolina fan, Michael Carpenter, one of her hosts in the U.S., but the team’s loss in the championship game didn’t take away from her excitement.
“It was still amazing,” Velasquez said. “I’ll never forget that there was a girl next to me who was crying and crying. I was like, ‘It’s just a game.’”
Velasquez has been a student at East Wake High School over the past year, where the junior says she received a warm welcome. “Everybody was very friendly to me,” she said. “Everybody says hi to me. Everybody knows that I’m the exchange student from Chile.”
The year abroad, which was arranged through the Rotary Club, was something she’d wanted to do for years. She applied with a friend in Chile who went to Chicago for a year. “I wanted to know how teenagers live in this country,” Velasquez said.
School is more difficult in Chile, she said, where students have more classes, tests every week and a longer day, but where homework is not stressed as much as in the states. Most of what she’s studied here has been a review of subjects already covered in her classes there.
She will be returning next month in the middle of her senior year in Chile, where the school year goes from March to December because winter and summer are reversed south of the equator.
She will immediately begin studying for an exam that will determine where she can go to college, where she wants to study either psychology or nursing. She got a taste of nursing in a class at East Wake.
“I would love to spend more time here, but I have to get home and start studying,” she said.
Coming from a city in Chile called Los Angeles that is smaller than Raleigh, she was surprised by how much people from eastern Wake travel to the capital city. “Here, to go to Raleigh from Knightdale, it’s nothing,” she said. “It’s like going to the corner. ... For us, it’s like the city is the city and the town is the town. The two don’t go together.”
Also, people in Chile rely on public transportation much more than here, she said.
Velasquez also said her time here has taught her to be more independent, and her English has improved immensely. “Now I can really talk and respond to someone,” she said. Before, she said, “it wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk. I just didn’t know how to.”
She said she’s looking forward to returning to the Chilean custom of eating the main meal of the day at about 1 p.m., rather than snacking all day until eating the main meal in the evening. Chileans also eat more beef than Americans. “Here I leaned to eat a lot of chicken,” Velasquez said. “Now I love chicken.”
She also said she would miss ice cream here. “We have ice cream, but it’s not good,” she said of Chile.
Lynne Carpenter, Velasquez’s current host mother, said the student from Chile has become a “lifelong member” of their family. The Carpenters, who live near Knightdale, were one of three host families Velasquez has lived with since August.
“She’s my daughter I never had,” Lynne Carpenter said. “It’s going to be hard to let her go. That’s something we don’t talk about.”
Matt Goad: 919-829-4826