Trouble in paradise


“I can’t believe you’re alive.”

The words Amelia Kimball’s roommate at Universidad del Sagrado Corazon in Puerto Rico spoke to her as she returned from a visit to Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico still give her chills.

Kimball had only been in Puerto Rico on National Student Exchange for a few weeks, but her time had already been riddled with scary experiences. After six weeks on the island, Kimball said she couldn’t take it anymore and returned home.

It didn’t start out bad though. Kimball, a journalism and Spanish major at UW-Eau Claire, began researching schools in Spanish-speaking countries to fulfill the study abroad requirement for her major.

“I had been waiting for this moment for a really long time,” Kimball said. “I was probably the biggest believer in study abroad there was.”

The idea of being fully immersed in a new language and culture is an invaluable experience that can’t be replicated in the classroom, said Carter Smith, chair of the foreign language department at Eau Claire.

“There’s no substitute for a semester abroad,” Smith said. “You can’t get that same experience two, three, four days a week that you can get when you’re immersed in the language and the culture. As talented as a professor might be in the classroom, he or she can’t bring that experience to the students.”

Studying in Puerto Rico is a popular option for Spanish majors and minors since students can go through NSE, said Jacqueline Bonneville, assistant dean of students and NSE coordinator at Eau Claire.

“We have had many students go (to Puerto Rico), and they have loved their experience,” Bonneville said. “Is it a big city and a very different experience? Absolutely.”

Eau Claire has been a part of NSE since 1984 and rarely receive complaints about the program, said Bonneville.

Schools must submit an application and go through a review process including site visits, personnel interviews and a vote by member schools to be part of the NSE program, Bonneville said.

When students do come back with bad experiences, formal complaints are written up by the student. The case is looked at by the national office in
Indiana, and further action is taken from there.

Not what it seemed

As a Spanish major, Kimball was required to study in a Spanish-speaking country for a minimum of six weeks. The option to do a National Student Exchange was appealing to her because it would be cheaper, she said.

Kimball said one of the biggest reasons she chose Sagrado was the advertisements. The school depicted on the website and in the YouTube videos was a very different school from the one Kimball found herself at near the end of August.

“I put a lot of research into this school,” Kimball said. “I asked around and got as much information as I could. I thought it looked amazing.”

Once she was on her way, the bad omens were there almost immediately, she said. For starters, she missed her flight. She wound up not arriving in Puerto Rico until late at night. There was no one at the airport to escort her to school, which was advertised as being in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As she got in the cab in a strange city and read off the address, she said she was confused: it was in Santurce, Puerto Rico.

“I thought, ‘Where am I going? What’s Santurce? I’m supposed to be in San Juan,’” Kimball said. “But I didn’t say anything because I thought this must be right. This is what they gave me.”

As the cab navigated the narrow streets, Kimball said she grew increasingly nervous. There were people sitting on top of cars smoking, bars in the windows and graffiti was everywhere. The dark streets were filled with potholes, homeless people and garbage and felt very unsafe. Kimball chalked it up to culture shock.

Kimball said it wasn’t any one thing in particular that made her want to leave, but the combination of events that made her feel everything from
uncomfortable to unsafe. She was consistently sexually harassed by staff at her university and rarely felt safe in the city. In addition to her fears for her safety, Kimball was also worried she wasn’t getting the full language immersion experience she expected.

Kimball tried her best to speak the language whenever she could, but she found it difficult when there were so many people around her speaking English.

“It’s up to you. If you want to get better, you’ve really got to force yourself.” Kimball said.

This certainly isn’t the case every time someone studies in a different country. Kimball’s experience is a rare one in many regards.

The last straw

A few weeks into her stay, Kimball was invited by a few friends to go explore the ruins of El Moro. Kimball agreed, thinking the adventure would be fun.

She said they were just outside campus when she felt something was wrong. Instead of going to a cultural landmark, they were going to a club.

Her friends pressured her into continuing. Kimball said she didn’t feel like she had the power to leave on her own anyway.

“I was in such a dangerous area that if I wanted to leave by myself, it was at my own risk,” Kimball said.

What Kimball didn’t know when she agreed to keep going with her friends was they were actually going to Rio Piedras.

“That was the scariest place I’ve ever been to in my life,” Kimball said.

The scene in Rio Piedras was chaos, Kimball said. She was stuck, unable to move in a smoke-filled club in a city she didn’t feel safe in to begin with. As she and her friends tried to navigate the room, Kimball said unknown substances were being spilled on her, or in some cases, forced down her throat. Kimball said she was most concerned by the presence of weapons.

When a few other people in her group decided they were ready to leave, Kimball said she was relieved. The group found a nearby fast food restaurant to recollect themselves. But that didn’t turn out to be any calmer than the club. The restaurant was filled with drunk people and an altercation between them and the people she was with soon broke out.

“There’s a full-on fight going on at Burger King at two in the morning and I’m sitting here with this girl crying in my arms,” Kimball said.

When Kimball returned to the university and told her roommate what had happened, she expressed her shock.

Sneaking home

When Kimball decided she had
finally had enough, her dad, David Kimball, helped her get a plane ticket.

“Amelia was doing her best to see things through,” David Kimball said. “One thing she’s not is a quitter.”

On the morning of Sept. 27, Kimball packed her backpack with a few items she couldn’t live without: favorite clothing items, souvenirs for her family, her computer and a few other things. She left the rest behind.

Worried about being coerced into staying, Kimball didn’t tell anyone she was leaving.

Kimball said she could go hours or days holed up in her dorm without anyone wondering where she was, but once she left the island, it was a different story.

“I have about 50 missed calls, extremely threatening voice mails and text messages from students and staff there,” Kimball said.

The content of those messages was mostly about getting her to come back by any means necessary, including getting the police involved, Kimball said. People at the school were worried about what could happen to the program. It got so bad Kimball had to change her phone number.

“I just want people to know how dangerous it is there,” Kimball said.