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Teacher takes a slice of Minn. life home

Alina Gil of Montevideo, Uruguay, speaks to students Wednesday in Amber Doering's Spanish class at Montevideo High School. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

MONTEVIDEO -- Alina Gil has a lot of explaining to do, which is exactly what brought her from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Montevideo, Minnesota.

In the last several days, she's talked to students in the Ortonville public schools, at the University of Minnesota in Morris, and since last Monday, in the Montevideo public schools.

"I'm happy because I know I've touched many people here and they will remember where Uruguay is,'' said Gil on Wednesday.

Her home is a country of 3.5 million people and only about the size of Washington state, she told Spanish students in Amber Doering's class at the Montevideo High School.

Until she arrived in Montevideo, Gil discovered that many of her young audience members had trouble placing Uruguay on the map.

Students in Montevideo have no such trouble, thanks to a sister city relationship between the two like-named cities that dates back to 1905.

Gil is an English instructor with the Alianza Cultural Uruguay - Estados Unidos in Montevideo, Uruguay. Her trip here is made possible through the Partners of the Americas, which promotes cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Latin American countries including Uruguay.

For Gil, the visit is an opportunity to sharpen her command of English as it's spoken in the U.S., and to learn more about the culture of this country. She will be teaching expressions to her Uruguayan students that cannot be found in their textbooks, like "comfort food'' or "getting mixed up in the wrong crowd.''

For the American students who hear her, it's an opportunity to learn about what Gil calls "a small country with a strong identity.''

Gil is only too happy to tell students about Uruguay's strong democracy, and how its people support the obligation to vote in elections.

The country places a great emphasis on education. It recently supplied every elementary student with his or her own laptop, she noted.

And, all levels of education are free. There is no tuition or costs other than living expenses when attending a public university.

Gil has found much to like about the U.S. educational system. There are more educational resources here, and she likes the approach of "thematic'' classrooms devoted to the subjects taught in them. In Uruguay, a class of students stays in one room and teachers come and go through the course of the day.

Gil, 29, grew up in Mercedes, a community of 40,000 people in the northwestern part of Uruguay. She has been studying English since she was 7 years old; her first 10 years of study were with the same teacher.

Previous scholarships have allowed her to spend time in Austin, Texas, and Boston, Mass., and she took advantage of those visits to see places ranging from New York City to Miami, Fla.

Yet no visit has been quite as rewarding as this visit to Minnesota, she said. She's been spending her time staying with families and living in their homes, getting a real sense of what day-to-day life is actually like.

There are certainly some differences. Peanut butter is definitely an acquired taste, she said. Here, she noticed that everyone removes their shoes the moment they walk into a home. That would be considered rude in Uruguay, she said.

What she has enjoyed most about her experience here is exactly what she believes American visitors will enjoy most about Uruguay, too. "What impressed me in a good way is the hospitality,'' she said. "It has been wonderful.''

Gil left Friday for the Twin Cities, where she will be spending a week before returning to Uruguay. She has posted a collection of photographs of her time in Minnesota at:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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