Letter to the Editor: Response to “Trouble in Paradise”

After reading the article about Amelia Kimball’s experience in the San Juan area of Puerto Rico in “Trouble in Paradise,” I was shocked, and I could sympathize with her as well.

I have spent the last two months in San German, Puerto Rico, and I also spent fall 2012 here as well. I have heard stories about the metro area and have even visited it a few times, and needless to say, it is not my favorite destination on the “island of enchantment” (Puerto Rico’s slogan). It can be very dangerous, particularly for non-locals, and I have had more than one brush with danger in that area that made me swear that I was never going to leave San German again.

Unlike the terrifying reality of the extremely high crime rate in San Juan, San German was more-or-less peaceful and laid-back, and it speaks much more to Puerto Rico’s “Island of enchantment” slogan than the San Juan area.

I first came to San German last fall semester after having studied in Costa Rica during spring 2011. I did very little research on Puerto Rico and expected it to be pretty similar to my experience in Costa Rica. Boy, was I taken by surprise! It seemed pretty quiet, small and friendly, and my coordinators from the Interamerican University of San German picked me up and dropped me off at the dorms without so much as a clue as to what I was supposed to do.

I’m not going to sugar-coat my initial reaction; I hated it, and I wanted to leave. I was homesick, and I didn’t know anyone. The city has a pretty small population, but the area that it covers is pretty big (at least for someone who doesn’t have a car and has to walk forty-five minutes to get to a supermarket).

The Internet in any given place was iffy or non-existent. My coordinators seemed distant, constantly busy, and I didn’t want to bother them. My Spanish skills, which were excellent in Eau Claire, were mediocre in San German. Sure the English-speakers quickly found me, excited to practice, but I was not going to give up. I got made fun of for my Spanish a bit, and I was often singled out for being a gringa (a girl from the mainland United States) by the boricuas (Puerto Ricans).

Every day was an exhausting struggle, especially with almost no one to talk to. I was ready to give up, looking up flights and asking my mom if she could, if it came down to it, spare the money to get me a last-minute flight home.

However, after about a month, I found a group of students that lived in the city, who mostly only spoke Spanish, and continued to hang out with them up to the present. I was able to make friends, even though I was miserable and lacking self-confidence, because I felt safe to go out at night and walk around the main parts of town (with another person at least).

I have never felt as empowered as I did when I came home in December of 2012. I did it. I made it. Four and a half months in Puerto Rico with great grades, new friends, and some unforgettable experiences. I felt like I could do anything, but all I really wanted was to come back, to extract even more knowledge, life lessons and experience out
of this city.

So I applied for another National Student Exchange in San German, and after two months of old and new challenges, like explaining to new friends that I was here before or climbing the never-ending inclines of the “City of the hills,” I am so glad that last August I decided to stay and give Puerto Rico another chance.

I have learned so much about this city, this island and myself, and it has changed me in ways that I could not possibly describe. My experience in San German has left me awestruck and speechless, not only because of the area’s cultural, linguistic and natural beauty, but also the strength and pride it has given me to pursue my aspirations.

This has truly been an experience of a lifetime, and any student who is looking into studying in Puerto Rico, I strongly recommend San German. It may not be perfect, but it is a fantastic place to develop Spanish-speaking skills and a greater cultural understanding while also growing personally to be more responsible, grateful, and understanding of your needs and aspirations.

— Lacey F. Struensee

 Senior Spanish for business
major, global studies and Latin American studies minor