When Laura Suarez signed up for the exchange student program for her senior year of high school, she was excited to travel from her home in Bolivia to America, but at the same time she was a little unsure of what she was getting herself into. She knew this could end up being a wonderful experience or it could be a long five months away from her family and friends. Thankfully, she feels her time spent in Thomaston has been a good one.
David and April Beeland, along with their two children Whitney and Will, served as the host family for Laura, which admittedly took some adjusting to get used to the whole situation. However, they stated the transition period didn’t take too long and now it is like Laura is another member of the family.
“She really just fits in like a Beeland,” said David, “it is like she has been a member of the family forever. There was a period of adjustment when she first came here and now we will have to adjust to her not being here. It has gone by so fast, but has been a great experience.”
The Beelands began thinking of hosting an exchange student after seeing how well it went for a family friend who hosted a student from Germany. After doing some research, they applied to host a student with the International Student Exchange program and after viewing several profiles, decided Laura seemed like she would be a good fit for their family. A special exception had to be made by the Thomaston-Upson County Board of Education since she would be coming in the second semester, when most come in August and spend the entire school year here. The board approved the matter on a Tuesday night in January and Laura arrived in America the following Sunday.
One of the family’s favorite stories to tell about Laura’s time here is how they almost lost her in the airport before they even had the chance to meet face to face. It is something they share with a laugh now, although it was a very nerve-wracking experience for their first night together. According to David, Laura was supposed to be flying in on American Airlines, but he forgot that the company has their own terminal. He and the rest of the family had been waiting at the right gate number but the wrong terminal and after about 30 minutes of no Laura, they began to get worried. They soon realized they were in the wrong place completely and hurried off to find the newest family member.
By the time they made it across the airport to the right place, Laura and her suitcase were already gone and she was walking around searching for the Beelands.
“I thought ‘Oh my gosh, they forgot me’,” said Laura with a smile.
In the midst of their search, the family had her paged over the loud speaker, first in English, then in Spanish when they realized she would not be accustomed to listening for her name in English. It wasn’t too long before they were able to spot Laura talking with a security guard.
“She was just smiling and talking, taking everything in stride, which is a testament to her personality. I like to remind her that we technically never lost her, because we had never found her to begin with,” said David with a laugh.
After finally making it home around midnight on January 13, Laura was up bright and early the next day to begin her time as a student at Upson-Lee High School. She noted there are many differences between school in America and school in Bolivia, particularly the time of the school year and the length of the school day. The school year in Bolivia begins in February and ends in October and the day is shorter, starting at 7:15 a.m. and ending just before 1 p.m. Students also stay in the same room throughout the day and the teachers rotate to teach different subjects. Laura said she has enjoyed school here in America and it is easier than her classes back home. However, no matter what country she is in, math is still her least favorite subject.
During her short time in Thomaston, Laura has kept busy by playing on the ULHS tennis team, taking dance at Sarah Armstrong School of Dance, being involved with the youth group at Mountain View Baptist Church and spending time with her new friends. She was able to keep in touch with her family and friends back home without running up a huge international phone bill through an app on her phone which allows her to talk and text for free anytime she is connected to a wireless network. Laura noted that this has helped her from becoming home sick over the last five months.
When asked what she will miss the most about Thomaston after she returns home, Laura noted she is going to miss her almost weekly dinners at La Fiesta, which quickly became her favorite restaurant in town, and shopping, which she has done nearly every weekend, noting that clothes are less expensive here also. But more importantly, she will miss all of her friends and the Beelands, who have truly made her feel like one of their own. However, she knows through the app on her phone and the use of facebook, they will all be able to keep in touch.
“I just think it must take a tremendous amount of trust and faith to send your child to another country for five months,” said David, “but we are very glad it was something her parents were able to do.”