ROGERS — Like any other restless teenager, Valeria Blazquez Coca joined a student exchange program to try new things, meet new people and travel the world.
Unlike other student travelers, she also hopes her experiences will also open doors for other disabled kids hoping to learn about another culture.
Valeria is from Spain, but she is also visually impaired. She has been a student at Rogers High School since August, where her hosts are Rogers Independent School District Superintendent Joe Craig and his wife Michele, who is a teacher for the visually impaired.
“I didn’t want to study in Spain,” Valeria said. “I just wanted to learn English exactly perfect ... and I wanted to have new experiences and know about culture, know a lot of new people — I just knew the Spanish kind of people, and I needed a change in my life.”
Valeria said that the biggest difference between Spain and the United States has been how the culture here is more focused on home life.
“In Spain, the people go a lot to the street — we almost live in the street,” she said. “We don’t stay at home. ... It’s just a different mentality — we just go out and hang out with everyone.”
School is also very different, Valeria said, and people react to disabilities differently.
“In Spain, there’s a lot of discrimination,” Valeria said. “We have a long ways still for integration in Spain.”
Having decided she wanted a cross-cultural experience, Valeria first looked into studying in Canada, but that did not work out.
“My mother was very afraid at the beginning, like, oh, probably you should go to Canada because it’s like ... a more European country,” Valeria said. “The district (in Canada) didn’t accept me. ... It’s difficult for a family that doesn’t have any contact with disabilities — it’s a completely new experience.”
Valeria came to the United States through Share!, an exchange program of the nonprofit Educational Resource Development Trust, and a Spanish organization called Students in USA. Share! began reaching out to teachers who work with disabled students in order to find house parents who feel able to host a student like Valeria, which is how the Craigs got involved.
The Craigs have never hosted an exchange student, but their older son, Zach, is about to go to college next semester, so this seemed like a good time to start.
Craig said the family has enjoyed having Valeria stay with them.
“If it’s good for (your) family, it is a wonderful experience,” he said. “We have a lot of fun together. ... Her and my eighth-grader (Jaxon), they’re normal — they’re siblings, they have fun together and they give each other a hard time.”
Having an exchange student on campus, Craig said, has been a good experience for Rogers students.
“They get to learn something about people that they didn’t know before,” he said. “She’s done great — she’s made some great friends.”
Valeria is scheduled to return to Spain at the end of the spring semester.
“But I actually don’t want to go back,” she said. “I would like to go to (college) here, but college here is very expensive — in Spain it’s almost free.”
Valeria said she would encourage other students with disabilities to consider joining an exchange program. Finding ways to make things work — such as adding Braille stickers to a washing machine — is not as hard as it might seem, she said.
“The families sometimes don’t want these kinds of students because they don’t know how to treat them,” Valeria said. “(But) if I can do it, everybody can do it. I’m not special.”
When she goes home, Valeria expects she will miss the Craig family, and American culture.
“I’m here for almost a year, and I feel like I was American forever,” she said. “I will miss, I think, everything.”