Katy Fernandez of Costa Rica says Oregon experience 'invaluable'

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Katy Fernandez got to meet President Barack Obama on her native Costa Rican soil before embarking on a nine-month exchange trip to Forest Grove in 2013-14.Costa Rica came to Forest Grove during the school year that ends this week.

Eighteen-year-old exchange student Katherine “Katy” Fernandez spent nine months living with Daniel and Paula Sullivan and going to school with their daughter Sydney at Forest Grove High School, where she got to know American culture by participating in it firsthand.

“I feel like this is the most amazing experience of my whole life,” said Katy. “It’s incredible how much I have grown and learned since it began.”

Fernandez came to Oregon by way of the highly competitive Franklin Chang-Diaz scholarship offered by AFS-USA (originally known as American Field Service), a nonprofit dedicated to intercultural learning. Only four teenagers from all of Costa Rica were accepted for the program after a lengthy selection process that included interviews and essays.

“She worked very hard to get that scholarship,” said AFS USA Coordinator Shaun Sullens, who is based in Beaverton.

Before leaving their home country, winners were treated to an impromptu meeting with President Barack Obama, who visited Costa Rica in May 2013.

“I was the last in line [to shake hands with Obama]. I was really nervous,” Katy wrote in a later essay. “He congratulated us and told us to keep studying hard and doing our best, and [to] our surprise he asked for a picture of us. That was the highlight of the day, because no one was expecting it.”

Katy literally made a splash with her host family when she arrived in Forest Grove last August. “We went rafting on the Salmon River in Washington the day after we picked her up,” said her host father, Dan Sullivan. “She just got here and all of the sudden she’s sitting in front of the river as our guide explains to us all the ways we can die.

“I tried to calm her down and tell her that people raft the river every day. But then we got in the water and the first rock we hit she flew head-over-heels out of the boat and I swam out to go get her. She was fine, but her eyes were huge and to this day we still laugh about it.”

After that initial tumble, Katy soon fell right into place in her new home. “She’s just a very good kid,” Sullivan said. “She adopted us and was part of the family, doing dishes and laundry. Katy’s very close with her own grandmother in Costa Rica, so when my mom came up to visit from Kansas City, [she] spent hours sitting and talking with her in a surrogate-granddaughter kind of way.”

Katy connected to her school the same way she adopted her family. She joined the FGHS culinary and arts clubs and volunteered at the Wednesday farmer’s market downtown. “As time went on I got to meet and talk with more people,” she said.

Sullivan said Katy signed up for more clubs than he ever knew existed. “Every night was, ‘Can you take me to the high school so I can volunteer for this or that?’ Every day it’s something different — it’s very impressive.”

Pete Rusaw, Katy’s math teacher, was similarly impressed. “Six weeks into the school year I offered to switch Katy out of my pre-calculus class into my calculus class so she could be with her host-sister, Sydney. Katy had to do quite a bit of catch-up work but she ended up being one of the best students in the class.

“She’s brilliant, but she’s very humble about it, and as the year went on people were drawn to that.”

In May, Katy was chosen as FGHS’ Student of the Month, not only for her academic prowess but also for her involvement in school activities and her representation of Costa Rican culture.

“AFS students give presentations so they can teach our American students about their country, and Katy did that a lot,” said Sullens. “She really stands out. Every time I call her, she’s like ‘What can I do for AFS?’ She’s so helpful and positive. I just love being around her.”

Katy’s program will end when she returns to Costa Rica later this month — but her plans for the future are as ambitious as ever. “When I go back I have to finish my second semester of high school, and then I have to start applying for colleges in Costa Rica. I think I’m going to study industrial design.

“I’m a fan of art, science and engineering, so I think that industrial design is a great combination of those three things. I’m also learning Chinese and I really want to go to China some day. And I definitely want to come back to the U.S. too ... maybe I’ll do a college exchange program.”

When asked what her most memorable experience about her year was, Katy described preparing for the annual Shamrock Run, held in Portland on St. Patrick’s Day. “My host family usually does it every year,” Katy said. “They asked me if I wanted to participate and I said, ‘Yeah let’s do it!’”

“We paint our faces and wear green and go on a 5-mile run,” added Sullivan.

“At first when we started to train for it, it was awful,” said Katy. “I couldn’t run a mile. But as time went on I started running more often, and that helped me set goals I could meet in March.”

Katy went the distance in 51 minutes and 23 seconds, putting her in 3,533th place out of more than 35,000 participants. In a similar fashion, perhaps Katy best summarized the steps to her own success in a recent essay she wrote for the AFS-USA program.

“What I experienced is invaluable and means a lot to me,” she wrote. “One act leads to another, and that is how we get things done in life.”

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