By Nicole Hennessy
Claudia Vakos translates from Spanish what Roy Jimenez is saying when he stumbles on his English. He doesn’t need much help – an English teacher in Costa Rica, Jimenez is responsible for the eight students who made Westlake their home for more than two weeks.
Vakos, a Spanish teacher in the district, talked to the students surrounding her in Lee Burneson Middle School’s main office, laughing with them.
“This is Oscar,” she explained, gesturing toward a student sitting next to her. Joking about how much he liked the cheerleaders in America, Oscar laughed.
Confronted by the cold upon arrival in Cleveland, neither Jimenez nor the students had seen snow before, and though mounds of it had already melted, the random patches that remained excited them.
Other differences in day-to-day life that took a little longer to get accustomed to had to do with matters of scheduling. Costa Rican time rolls by much slower than the constrained schedules that Americans seem to keep. Even needing a hall pass in school was an adjustment for the students, who are free to do as they please at their school as long as they don’t have class.
Despite these things, Jimenez said, “I think this is my best experience in my life.”
His first time in the U.S., like other international travelers, he did wish he had the time to see New York City; but he found Westlake to be an impressive city, something Vakos was worried about.
Coming from a lush country that offers beautiful scenery and sunshine, as well as activities like zip-lining and water skiing, to suburban Northeast Ohio would definitely be a transition, she was sure. But she worried that they’d find the city boring and plain.
To help make sure that wasn’t the case, Vakos scheduled an itinerary that included skiing at Brandywine and a Lake Erie Monsters game.
Oscar smiled as he remembered the hockey players getting in fights and, again, the cheerleaders. The next day he’d be on a plane back to Costa Rica, with a lifetime’s worth of connections.
In 2011 and 2012, Vakos took students to Costa Rica. She also took an older group to Spain in the past. She hopes the students who got to spend time with Oscar and his classmates will get a chance to experience what school is like in their country.
For students, travel “takes the blinders off,” and they can see “there’s life outside of Westlake,” said Vakos. They, like all travelers interested in digesting a culture and not just designated photo ops, learn the food, the people, different ways of living. “They learn to communicate, how to interact, how to be a friend of someone that lives a totally different lifestyle in a completely different country, that doesn’t believe the same things they do, and they make it work. And it’s beautiful to watch,” Vakos said.