Low rate of exchange

The once flowing exchange of high school students between sister cities Ashland and Guanajuato, Mexico, has been at a standstill since 2007.

The program started in 2000 to allow affordable academic exchanges for top-notch high school students, but was cut short after budget woes in the Ashland School District translated into higher costs for students visiting from Mexico, Ashland High School Spanish teacher Dana Rensi said.

"I would really like to see the high school exchange program restarted," Rensi said. "The benefit for both groups of students is so great."

Salvador Gonzalez, 17, from the University of Guanajuato's preparatory high school, Escuela Nivel Medio-Superior, is leaving Ashland today after more than a week of immersing himself in American culture for the first time, along with three other students from the school.

The students flew from Guanajuato to Ashland with Rensi on July 1 to represent the Mexican state in Ashland's Fourth of July parade, and to raise awareness about their school's desire to renew the exchange program with Ashland.

"A lot of students would like to come here," said Gonzalez, whose brother, Jonathan, studied at AHS through the exchange program as a 16-year-old in 2000. "I would like to come."

The cost for exchange students to enroll at AHS is $6,000 a semester, Rensi said, not including the cost of living.

In the past, students had to pay little more than their living expenses — a few hundred dollars a month at most — and the exchanges extended for no longer than two semesters, she said.

The cost to study in Guanajuato is far less for exchange students.

Malia Rosenlund, 18, who graduated from AHS this year, didn't let the lack of an exchange program stop her from studying Spanish in Ashland's sister city.

"I think studying abroad is just the best way to open your mind to different cultures and perspectives," Rosenlund said. "I had always wanted to study abroad, I just finally had the opportunity."

Rosenlund's family accompanied her to Mexico in July, she said, and she returned to finish the school year in Ashland at the end of December. She spent a few hundred dollars on living costs, and less than $1,000 to enroll at a language school the University of Guanajuato offers its high school and college students.

"She did it all on her own," Rensi said. "Not everyone can do that."

Last year, Rensi, 54, received one of about 19 Distinguished Fulbright Awards in Teaching grants that funded a six-month-long stint at University of Guanajuato's internal high school. She left Ashland in August and returned at the end of February.

At the high school in Guanajuato, Rensi trained English teachers how to use Moodle, an online learning environment, as a platform for their curriculum so students there and in Ashland could interact online.

The trip was a success. AHS students in Rensi's top-tier Spanish classes now get face-to-face time with Guanajuato students, who in turn sharpen their English language skills with AHS students.

Rosa Elena Lima, a biology and anthropology teacher at University of Guanajuato's internal high school and an English professor at its language school, taught alongside Rensi while she was completing her Fulbright there.

Lima said the university is ready to restart the program, but hasn't had any luck persuading the Ashland School District to get back on board.

"In Guanajuato, you have to learn how to speak English if you want to get a degree in anything, or a job," Rensi said. "Most have been learning since first grade."

The majority of UG's high school students don't get credit for attending the language school to learn English, Rensi said.

"They just know how important it is, so they learn it," she said.

Gonzalez, who swam in a river and a lake for the first time in his life this week, said he's glad to finally be able to visit Ashland like his brother did 12 years ago.

"At first, I wasn't sure, but all of the people are very nice," Gonzalez said.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

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