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When she arrive in Mazatlán, a vibrant coastal city in western Mexico, Esme Brekke knew no one.

She didn’t even know enough Spanish to hold a conversation.

“Once I stepped off the plane, I was like: ‘Oh no. What did I do?’ ” said Brekke, a senior at Central High School. She spent the entire 2017-18 school year in Mexico, on a trip organized by Rotary International’s student exchange program.

“I was coming from small-town La Crosse, and there were tall buildings and lots of people,” she said. “It was a huge change for me.”

Brekke, who picked Mexico because she had always wanted to learn Spanish, did much more than pick up the language and pass the time.

She met new people.

Tried exotic foods.

Explored ancient ruins.

So immersed was Brekke in the culture that, when she returned to La Crosse, the home she had known for 17 years had an unfamiliar tint to it.

“The reverse culture shock is definitely worse than the initial culture shock,” she said. “It’s weird to get back into your old routine after so much has changed.

“It’s like I have a whole ’nother life in Mexico.”

Rotary International sends thousands of students overseas each year, with the intent of exposing them to new cultures and ideas, instilling a global perspective.

The program arranged for Brekke to stay with three different host families, each in a different area of Mazatlán, each with their own way of doing things.

Brekke said it was a struggle to adjust during the first two months of her trip. There were times when she felt homesick, she said, and her communication skills in those early weeks were limited to hugs and smiles.

“It was weird going to live with people I had never met before, but I ended up liking them all for different reasons,” Brekke said. “It seemed like every time I was getting comfortable, it was time to go and live with a new family.”

The trip was not one long field trip for Brekke — she still had to go to school. But she also had plenty of opportunities to explore Mexico’s natural beauty and most famous landmarks.

She went ziplining at Copper Canyon, saw the pyramids in Mexico City, and spent evenings with her friends at the beach in Mazatlán.

Brekke also had a hand in a number of service projects — from cleaning up a beach, to building a school, to delivering gifts to an orphanage on Christmas.

“I’d really like to go back,” she said. “All I want to do is talk about the trip, but everyone else is like, ‘You have been talking about it.’ ”

There were lots of things to miss about Wisconsin, she said — Culver’s and her mom’s macaroni and cheese come to mind. Friends and family, too.

“One of the biggest things was seeing all of my friends at prom,” he said. “It was like: ‘Oh, man. That’s my junior prom.’”

Brekke said she feels pulled toward both places now.

A year in Mexico gave her a newfound appreciation for her longtime home; it also opened her mind to a new culture, and gave her the confidence to embark on more adventures.

She’s interested in attending college overseas, and she’s thinking about becoming a teacher. Perhaps a Spanish teacher.

“I’d love to find something where I can do both,” she said.

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Kyle Farris can be reached at (608) 791-8234 or Follow him on Twitter at @Kyle_A_Farris.


Kyle Farris reports on education for the La Crosse Tribune. Reach him at (608) 791-8234 or

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