Joan Stephen spoke virtually no Portuguese before she left last year on a Rotary Club student exchange to Brazil and now she's quite fluent.
Getting to that point was not without a few trials and tribulations.
Like the time she confused the pronunciation of the word po, which means bread, and it came out sounding more like the Portuguese swear word for doggy-doo.
"I made so many embarrassing mistakes and you just have to laugh at them, you just have to be careful," laughed Stephen.
"The hardest part is not being afraid to make mistakes, and once I got a basic grasp of the language I could understand a lot more than I could speak. If you have a lot of enthusiasm and the ability to try, you can get almost any message across if you have simple vocabulary."
During her 10-month exchange, Stephen lived in Luclia, a farming community of about 10,000, located a seven-hour drive from the Brazilian capital, So Paulo, where she attended a private school.
"One thing I was really worried about before I left, that I wasn't going to make any friends, but they were super-friendly," Stephen said. "School was a lot of fun because that's where I met other teenagers. I was the only exchange student in my city and I made friends at school really fast because the Brazilian people are so open. I walked in the first day and they all gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. They all wanted to be friends with me."
Her home life was divided between two host families who made her feel equally right at home. The younger generation spoke some English but most adults, including her host parents and Rotary club members, did not. At school, where she took one semester of Grade 11 courses and one of Grade 12, Stephen put her native language skills to work as an English tutor, which helped her practice Portuguese.
Living a tropical savannah climate, the average high temperature in Luclia is about 25 C, but it wasn't unusual to hit 40 C and that came as a bit of shock for Stephen.
"People take afternoon siestas in the heat of the day and school starts at 7 a.m. and is finished by noon," Stephen said. "You go home and have a big meal and the whole family gets together, and then you have a nap. The food was amazing, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Every Wednesday they have a farmers' market in the church and everyone went. The church is beautiful and that's how I found my way around because you can always see the church."
While in Brazil, Stephen got together with other Rotary students to visit So Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and took a boat trip on the Amazon River.
Stephen heard about the Rotary exchange program while she was a Grade 10 student at College Heights secondary school and was one of 11 who applied to the Nechako club in Prince George.
"It's totally different than traveling because you actually get to live in the culture so you experience things you never would just traveling," she said. "I wasn't just visiting another culture, but getting to know it."
Rotary clubs cover the cost of flights, insurance and provide a monthly allowance. The entire 10-month trip cost the Stephen family $4,500. Families that can't afford the cost can apply for further subsidies. Knowing what the trip has done for her, she's encouraging more students to apply for the program.
"I'm a lot more confident in who I am and a lot more outspoken and I just see things differently," she said. "I know what I want to do. I want to get the good marks and go to university and make a difference. It just cemented all that. A lot of kids don't think they will get chosen. You just have to want to go and be a good student and just be a good person, willing to try new things."
Stephen's Brazilian schoolwork is not transferable to Canadian schools and the 18-year-old aspiring neuroscientist is now finishing up her Grade 12 studies, having transferred to PGSS.
Don Stephen, Joan's dad, applied for the Rotary exchange program when he was in high school in 1980 but said his marks weren't good enough and he didn't get picked. He recognizes the value of the program and he and his wife Loraina are now hosting Elyse Donck of Belgium, who goes to school with Joan.
"It was awesome for Joan, she had fun, she learned a lot and saw a lot," said Don. "You get to live with the people so you get to see what's going on."
Through the magic of Skype and email, Joan kept her family posted frequently from Brazil.
"I felt pretty confident about Joan before she left, she makes good decisions, so I wasn't worried about her," Don said. "They really look after you on these Rotary exchanges, they have a lot of safety checks."