A pivotal student exchange experience

05/12/2012

Over 10 years ago, Jesper Frant, a high school student from Boulder, Colorado, went as an exchange student to sister city Mante, Mexico for a year. Today, Jesper recounts how life changing the experience was.

"It's impossible to overstate how pivotal my year in Mexico was in shaping my worldview and setting my goals for the future. Prior to my year abroad, I had traveled quite a bit with my parents and attended bilingual school. I knew Spanish and was comfortable traveling in foreign countries, but looking back, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of being fully immersed in another language, another family and another culture.

Not only did my experience studying abroad help shape my worldview, it has guided many of my most important life choices: to stay involved with the Boulder-Mante Sister Cities Committee, to study international affairs at the University of Colorado, to write my honors thesis on the plight and potential Mexican migrants living in the U.S., and to pursue a graduate degree in international development. But the most fundamental personal change I experienced as a result of my year abroad was developing a sense of empathy for those who – simply because of where they are born – cannot afford basic healthcare, a quality education, or even nutritious food and clean water.

Boulder and Mante share many things in common, but at no time were the differences more apparent than during the Boulder Community Hospital’s annual medical campaign. Volunteering as a translator during my year abroad, I saw thousands of people from hundreds of miles around Mante turn out for the opportunity to meet with the “gringo” doctors. 

One day, an elderly blind man walked into the make-shift eye clinic to which I’d been assigned. The American doctors immediately diagnosed him with advanced cataracts, which had clouded his vision for over a decade. His condition had gone untreated due to a combination of insufficient access to properly trained medical professionals and limited availability of modern medical technology. 

Guided by his granddaughter, the man was immediately moved to the front of the line, and within fifteen minutes his cataracts were removed and his vision was restored. I will never forget the look on his face, tears streaming from behind protective glasses, as he walked out of the operating room without the assistance of his granddaughter. “What a miracle. God bless you,” he repeated in a trembling voice as he hugged each American nurse and doctor.

Had this man been born in the U.S. his condition would have been treated years earlier. Unfortunately, the world is filled with this kind of basic inequality, but I believe that with a little ingenuity and a lot of hard work – as economist Jeffrey Sachs pointedly put it – “extreme poverty can be ended, not in the time of our grandchildren, but our time.”

Jesper was later elected to be a youth board member of the Boulder Mante Sister City Committee and has remained a board member ever since.

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