Originally published in the Telegraph Herald on January 16, 2023.
Gerti Wall completed high school and landed in Paraguay the very same day. On Friday, Jan. 13, the Dyersville resident graduated from Iowa Virtual Academy and began life as a foreign exchange student, an adventure she had been eager to start.
With the goal of second-language fluency, her time in the small, landlocked South American country will be an immersion experience.
She regularly studied Spanish through Iowa Virtual Academy. The decision to step away from her large public school during senior year, made by Wall and her parents Heidi and Jason, allowed her to complete high school early and opened the final semester for travel. It was a bittersweet choice for Wall, who recognizes she will miss some of the senior milestones like prom and graduation, but she hopes to experience something similar at the private school she will attend in Paraguay.
Wall’s family has hosted exchange students from Spain, Denmark and Vietnam. When she was 12, they visited a former exchange student in Denmark. The Wall household is a place where inclusivity and hospitality are prioritized, where her mother keeps the house full of people. Wall has grown up surrounded by foster children, an adopted sibling, exchange students and others who have needed a short-term place to call home.
At 17, Wall’s mother Heidi studied as an exchange student in Brazil. Having also graduated from high school early, she opted to learn by experiencing an entirely new culture. She found it to be “eye-opening because people live differently than you.” Heidi remembers returning home with an “understanding the world is so much bigger than where you come from.”
She had hoped all her children would choose to experience the world this way, but feels her youngest is the one with the “personality and wherewithal to make it happen.”
Wall and her parents started thinking about the possibility of studying abroad halfway through her junior year. It was during the pandemic, so choices were limited because of COVID-19 restrictions. Many exchange programs require students to still be enrolled in high school and under the age of 18, so it became even more challenging to find a match for Wall who didn’t meet both requirements.
Youth For Understanding was the first to respond, and also the one option offering a Spanish immersion experience, so the Walls felt they had found a perfect fit. An online description of the nonprofit international organization said that it offers “a wide range of opportunities to see the world up close. The global Youth For Understanding network is united by the belief that curiosity about the world expands cultural awareness and acceptance of other ways to live, which leads to broader perspective and greater understanding.”
After being interviewed by the staff members, Wall was matched with a host family from Concepcion, a large city in northern Paraguay. She’s connected with the oldest daughter on Instagram and already feels they have much in common. Both families have three biological children, a German shepherd and two cats.
Sweatshirts were on the Youth For Understanding packing list, which surprised Wall because it will be over 100 degrees much of the time in the tropical environment. Students in the program were encouraged to pack light, something Wall found difficult to do. Making clothing choices and saving money are the two greatest challenges Wall has encountered so far. Waiting tables at The Ritz in Dyersville since May helped Wall move closer to the $2,500 suggested for expenses.
Before leaving, Wall said she felt ready to take the leap. “I don’t get nervous until things actually hit me. It doesn’t feel real, but it will feel real on the plane ride.” Wall was to spend 13 hours traveling between Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Paraguay, with three flights carrying her into a completely new experience.
Sitting at the family’s kitchen table with her mother, reflecting on the past year and discussing what still needs to be done, Wall reminded herself about the important task of retrieving her passport from the family safe.
Returning in early June, Wall will apply to the University of Iowa, although she’s already been accepted to Wartburg. She plans to double major in law and Spanish at one of the two universities next fall. Join Wall’s adventures in Paraguay by connecting with “gertiwall” on Instagram.
To learn more about Iowa Virtual Academy, visit https://iava.k12.com/.