Life-Changing Adventure

An exchange with students from Spain proved truly life-changing for Helen Morgan ’15. Helen and her father, Frank Morgan, talked about their experience with the program and why it was so important to them. The program continued through fall 2018 with a visit from Spanish students. DA students will have opportunities to travel to Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries in the future.

Q — What motivated you to volunteer to participate in DA’s Spanish exchange program?

Helen Morgan: [In fall 2014] my AP Spanish teacher, Mrs. [Margarita] Throop, encouraged me to participate in the Spanish exchange program. She thought given my personality, it would be something that I would enjoy and could benefit from in terms of meeting and hosting a Spanish student, and having the opportunity to travel to Spain and experience Spanish language and culture in person. Mrs. Throop always takes the effort to get to know her students on a personal level, and I trusted her opinion and decided to try something completely new that I probably wouldn’t have done had she not encouraged me.

Frank Morgan: We knew the exchange opportunity with Colegio Madre de Dios could be a chance of a lifetime to enhance Helen’s understanding of Spanish language and culture.

Q — What was the experience like when you hosted your Spanish exchange student?

Frank: It was spectacular. Even before the Spaniards arrived, the students got to know each other by using email, social media and WhatsApp. When the Spaniards landed at RDU, they knew who to look for. Our DA students held huge, colorful, homemade, personalized “Welcome” signs to help their Spanish exchange student find them. Helen’s exchange sister was Raquel Morago Cordero, who quickly became “Kelo.” After warm greetings (and terrific hugs!), we joined another DA family and their exchange [student] for dinner. It was enjoyable from the very first minute, because Raquel was fun with a sense of humor that bridged any language barrier.

Helen: Hosting Raquel was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I gained a second family and a friend/sister for life. It was interesting to discover our cultural differences and similarities. For example, high school sports aren’t a huge deal in Spain. While I was heading to field hockey practice every day, Raquel didn’t have anything like that at her school. It was fun to have someone new in my house, especially because I am an only child. Raquel is so vibrant and fun, and it was helpful for her to practice English with my parents and me and for me to practice Spanish with her.

Q — What did you do to help introduce Raquel to DA, Durham and the U.S.?

Frank: With Kelo, the experience was wonderful each and every day. DA hosted a very nice dinner with all the Spaniards, their teachers, DA students and families. The [Upper School] luau dance provided a relaxed opportunity to mix with and meet DA students. They went out to eat, visited DA students’ houses and, of course, loved shopping at Southpoint mall. We loved trying to introduce Kelo to new foods at breakfast. She was a good sport, but sometimes she would gently wag her finger and say, “no no nooooo-oh.”

Helen: I loved getting the chance to be a tourist in my own city/state and seeing how excited Raquel was to see things that I sometimes take for granted like walking around UNC and Duke’s campuses or just going to the mall. Because everything is so compact in Madrid, driving to school each day and walking around the college campuses that we have nearby provided huge differences for Raquel and her friends to see. They loved seeing where we lived and what our routines were like, especially because there was such a major contrast between Durham and Madrid.

Q — What was the exchange visit to Spain like?

Helen: I had never been out of the country, and I had signed up to go for the first time without my parents and stay in someone else’s home. “What have I done?” I thought to myself. But after hosting Raquel and having a good time with her, I felt more excited about traveling to Spain and couldn’t wait to meet her family. I was immediately comforted upon seeing her rush toward me with a giant welcome poster and her mom taking pictures of every pair in the group to document the special moment of reuniting once the DA students arrived in Madrid in March.

Frank: Helen’s experience was terrific. She was totally immersed with Kelo and her charismatic, warm and thoughtful mom, Begoña. Begoña’s family is huge. They welcomed and included Helen as one of their own!

Q — How did you stay connected with Raquel and her family after the spring exchange?

Helen: Raquel and I actually became so close between our time in North Carolina and Madrid, that she came back during the summer [of 2015] to visit again for three weeks! It was so much fun to get to show her more of North Carolina, D.C. (we tried to go to all of the major museums/attractions) and Bald Head Island.

Frank: [Raquel] was a welcome, fun addition to our wonderful group of beach friends, who come from six different states. We believe this experience inspired Helen to continue studying Spanish in college and to go abroad.

In 2017, Helen spent a semester in Spain through Wake Forest University, where she is a communication major and Spanish minor. She studied at the University of Salamanca, where her curriculum was taught in Spanish and her host family spoke Spanish only.

Helen: Ever since the exchange, I had wanted to study abroad in Spain. I spent lots of time with the two of them [Raquel and Begoña] during my semester there. One of my favorite memories was my Thanksgiving with them. I took the hour-and-a-half train from Salamanca to Madrid to find Begoña and Raquel awaiting me with big hugs and some groceries. They were so thoughtful in knowing that it was Thanksgiving in the United States and that I was away from my parents. They prepared a special meal for me and did their best to replicate Thanksgiving food. We all went around the table and said what we were thankful for and had a Spanish chicken, which was the closest thing to a turkey we could find in Madrid. I’ll never forget how special and loved I felt that day, despite being thousands of miles away from my family in North Carolina. To my surprise, it turned out to be my favorite Thanksgiving ever because I felt their kindness and generosity so deeply and felt so blessed to have met these people through Durham Academy. It truly felt like a second family, despite the fact that our native languages weren’t the same.

Q — And both families were able to meet each other?

Frank: We visited Helen in October of 2017, staying in Madrid for several days. Begoña, Kelo and their huge family embraced us. They enhanced our trip, from a surprise double-decker bus tour, to family lunch gatherings, to guiding us through the subway and bus transportation, to museum tours, park walks and the ongoing search for the delicious Spanish Iberico ham!

Helen: I was so excited for my parents to have the chance to see Raquel again and finally meet her mom, and to see the country and culture that I had fallen in love with.

Q — What have you most enjoyed about this relationship? What have you learned?

Helen: I have most enjoyed gaining a second family that I am so close to. I think about Raquel and Begoña every day and the moments I have shared with them, and the things I have learned from them. When I think about my experience studying abroad through Wake Forest, I can’t help but tie that experience to DA. Had I not done the DA exchange (something I was scared to do initially), I wouldn’t be a Spanish minor, I wouldn’t have lived some of the best and most fun moments of my life, I wouldn’t have studied abroad in Spain, and I wouldn’t know what taking a small risk could do for the overall satisfaction of my life. I never imagined that this exchange would change my life, but it has had one of the most profound impacts on me that I can remember. I have been personally inspired by both Raquel and Begoña, by their wise spirits, kind and generous hearts, and fun-loving nature. I have promised myself to never stop speaking Spanish so that I can stay connected with them, and have enjoyed learning more about the language and culture. They have helped me learn how to love with an open heart. Raquel and Begoña are people I will always stay connected with, no matter what. We love each other like a real family, and I never would have expected this to happen when signing up for a brief exchange trip. I didn’t think that this trip would ever change my life, and thought it would be a fun way to see Spain with a group of friends and meet someone from another country, but I can’t imagine my life now without Raquel and Begoña.

Frank: We learned that the DA exchange experience is truly a gift that keeps on giving. What we most enjoyed about this relationship is that Raquel, Begoña and their genuinely warm family welcome and treasure Helen as their very own sister and daughter. They love her like their own, and us, too. Even though we don’t speak Spanish and they don’t speak English, we can communicate. We added an entire wonderful inclusive family to our own. All because of the opportunity the DA [Spanish] exchange presented.


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  • Magazine Winter 2019