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Uruguayans find familiar scenes in a foreign land

Sergio Castro, 18, tries out his kayaking skills on the Chippewa River. He grew up on a dairy farm in Uruguay. Submitted photo

MONTEVIDEO -- They range in age from 16 to 18, and said goodbye to families living in places as disparate as the grasslands of the famed "Guachos" to the seaside beaches of their nation's capital city, Montevideo, Uruguay.

They dropped in on Miami, Fla., toured the sites of Washington D.C., and then settled in for 10 days with host families in Montevideo, Minn.

None of it really caught these young Uruguayans by surprise.

"Just like the movies,'' laughed the visitors. They explained that many of the sights and places they visited- from Midwestern courthouses to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., - did indeed have a familiar look to them, thanks to the movies and television images they already had of the U.S.

Even Montevideo, Minn., hardly the setting for blockbuster movies, wasn't so different.

"I was expecting a quiet city and here is a quiet city,'' said Martín Silva, 18, of Artigas, Uruguay.

Silva is among six Uruguayan Youth Ambassadors visiting through the Partners of the America's program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Started in 2002 for students in Brazil, the U.S. Department of State has since expanded the program to include students from Uruguay, Chili, Paraguay and Argentina. It's an opportunity to learn about the U.S. and its culture, and to foster ties between the countries.

The students got a jump on it all, thanks to popular social networks available on the Internet. Although the Uruguayans live long distances from one another, they forged contacts before their trip over the Internet. They did the same with their counterparts on similar ambassador teams from Argentina and Paraguay.

When they all finally met: "I felt like we were friends,'' said Jennifer Alvarez, 17, of Melilla, a city near Montevideo, Uruguay.

They had friends waiting in Montevideo, Minn., too. The Minnesota community has enjoyed a unique sister city relationship with Montevideo, Uruguay since 1905. A statute of Jose Artigas- donated by Uruguayan school children in 1949- stands watch over the community's main street.

Six Uruguayan Youth Ambassadors visited Montevideo last year, and were followed by Maria Gilda Battagliese, an English instructor with the Alianza Cultural Uruguay-Estados Unidos in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Margarita Leal, also an English instructor with the institute, is serving as the student's escort on this trip.

Leal said they have appreciated the hospitality shown them here, and all that they have experienced.

The students have spent time in the classrooms of the Montevideo High School. The differences between the two country's educational systems caught their attention.

In Uruguay, there is much more focus on academic offerings. There are no school sports programs or music and theater offerings.

They were surprised to see how much time teachers devote to lectures here. In Uruguay, student participation and free-flowing discussions in the classroom are the norm.

The Uruguayan students are definitely computer savvy, but said their home schools don't yet offer the electronic white boards and state-of-the art computer labs they found here.

Some of the Uruguayans are starting their studies at public universities in the nation's capital. Their education is free. Others are finishing their high school studies, and are making required decisions on what track of studies they will follow.

Patrick Moore of Montevideo serves on the Minnesota-Uruguay Partners board of directors and helped host the students. He led them on tours to acquaint them with everything from Native American culture in the region to law enforcement and restorative justice initiatives.

As Youth Ambassadors, they will be developing a project of their own to bring to their country. The students said they have been discussing ideas ranging from working for improved traffic safety to tackling environmental issues or the needs of disadvantaged children.

They left Montevideo on Thursday. They will be spending time in Minneapolis and Stillwater, Minn., with visits to the state capitol, Wiseman Art Museum, University of Minnesota and Mall of America all part of the itinerary. Then it's "back to the grind'' of studies, said Leal with a smile, pointing out that the students would gladly spend more time here if they could.

Tom Cherveny

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

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