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Foreign exchange student hopes to extend her stay in the USA

Connie Vandermay/FOCUS Daniela Alvarez (left) of Ecuador, with one of her hosts, Andriane Uselman of New York Mills. Alvarez will spend a year as a foreign exchange student at New York Mills High School.

A little over a month ago, 17-year-old Daniela Alvarez traveled more than 3,000 miles northwest from her home in Ecuador to come to New York Mills. And though for now her plan is to be here for a year, thanks to the foreign exchange program, Alvarez hopes to extend her stay in America through medical school and beyond.

In an interview last week with her and her hosts, Mitch and Andriane Uselman, Alvarez explained in perfect English that back in Ecuador the government is closing universities, and as a result the entrance exams have become increasingly complicated. And since those entrance exams are given in February, Alvarez will miss her opportunity to test, meaning she would have to wait at least one semester before even getting into a college once she returns to Ecuador.

However, if she were able to find an international study program here, she could begin to study medicine right after graduation.

In the meantime, Alvarez is enjoying the American senior high experience at New York Mills High School. Homecoming, for example, is new to her. In fact, the Uselman's had to convince Alavarez that people really do dress up for homecoming week - something she's not used to, as schools in Ecuador require uniforms.

So far, Alvarez likes the small town atmosphere. It's far different from her home city of Quito, which has more than 2 million residents. She doesn't go out with her friends much in Ecuador, she said, because it can be dangerous.

Ecuador is located in South America; Columbia is to the north, Peru to the southeast and the South Pacific Ocean to the west. With an elevation that exceeds 9,000 feet, the weather is cool all year long - comparable to Minnesota autumns.

Alvarez said the biggest difference she's noticed between Ecuador and America is the schooling system. In Ecuador, school begins at 7:15 a.m. and goes until 1:45 p.m. They don't eat lunch in school, and instead flock to nearby restaurants. And instead of students switching classrooms for different subjects, teachers do the moving around.

In Ecuador, a student's weekday afternoons are filled with sports practice, extra studies and volunteering. Since it's against the law for anyone under 18 to work, they do not have after school jobs.

Some volunteering is mandatory in Ecuador. For example, last year as a junior, Alvarez was expected to spend 200 hours either teaching an older citizen to read and write, or helping in a poor school. She spent her time at a school, teaching children about exercise and Ecuadorian law. In Ecuador, school is not required, and often, poor families do not send their children.

Since first grade, Alvarez has been studying English, even tutoring in the subject early on. The main language of Ecuador is Spanish.

Alvarez likes American food, but doesn't find it quite salty enough. She was surprised that Americans keep guinea pigs as pets, as guinea pig is a common dish in Ecuador.

Some things remain the same for Alvarez, whether she's here or there. She continues to love studying chemistry and anatomy, and was happy to get into both courses in NY Mills. She was also happy there was a track team, as she participates in track at home.

Though this is her first time in NY Mills, this isn't her first time in America. Her entire family has spent vacations in Florida and California, and her older brother spent a year in the foreign exchange program in Wisconsin three years ago.

She visits with her family through Skype once a week. Ecuador is in the same time zone as Minnesota, which makes it easier for her to find time for communication. Her parents own two restaurants in Quito.

And though she misses her French poodle, Bori, as well as the scenery of the mountains, Alvarez looks forward to her first snowy winter - which she hopes is the first of many in her journeys through the 'land of opportunity.'