Local exchange student returns from year in Brazil

By Moira Blazi


17 year old Breeanna Runyan wears a small gold necklace in the shape of the state of Montana, her home. Just over one year ago, Runyan took her Montana pluck and, with the help of the Rotary Club of Kootenai Valley, she traveled to Chapeco’ Brazil, a city of about 215,000 people, for a year of adventure, as an international youth exchange student.

“When I first arrived, I did not speak a word of Portuguese,” she told The Montanian. Although Runyan had traveled to California and the east coast, this was the first foreign county she had visited. Her first host family spoke English, but she was with them for only two months. Her second host family, she recalled, spoke no English, so Runyan learned to speak Portuguese, which she now speaks fluently.

Runyan spent Christmas with her second host family, and she recalls how strange it felt, being in the middle of summer in the southern hemisphere. “This does not feel like Christmas,” she said, “It was so sunny, and I am used to snow.”

In January, after being in the country for five months, Breeanna and 53 other exchange students headed north and spent 23 days traveling around the vast country of Brazil. “We went to Salvador, Puerto Seguro, and Rio de Janeiro, where we visited the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer high on the mountain top overlooking the city and the famous Sugarloaf Mountain,” said Runyan.

Her third host family treated her to the experience of Carnival, in Rio de Janeiro, a festival very similar to Marti Gras in New Orleans. “I dressed up and was in the parade,” she said. “It was a lot of fun.”

“I met so many different people from so many different countries, we became close friends, and, we still text,” she said. “I got really close with some of my host siblings too.” With exchange students from Mexico, Italy, France, Denmark, India, Sweden, Belgium, and Taiwan, to name just a few, Runyan indeed had the chance to make some awesome friends. Breeanna helped with some Rotary projects too, like giving out school supplies in one of Chapeco’s poorest neighborhoods. She also gave presentations about Montana and Libby to her peers in the schools.

“The kids asked me about hunting and about driving since the driving age in Brazil is 18,” she said. “And the voting age is 16, just the opposite of here.”.

(picture) Runyan holds an American flag in front of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Photo courtesy of Breanna Runyan.

They wanted to know if American high schools are really like what they see in the movies and on TV with lockers and big hallways, Runyan said. “The high school kids in Brazil stay in one classroom all day, and it’s the teachers who move around.”

Runyan was surprised by a few cultural differences she discovered between the United States and Brazil. One example was how people didn’t even go barefoot indoors in their own homes. ‘They always asked me to put my flipflops on, they said it was because the floor was cold,” she said with a puzzled grin,

Also because of sometimes iffy sewer systems, she was a bit dismayed to learn that, “They throw toilet paper in the trash can, they don’t flush it.”

One cultural difference she loved, however, was the Brazilian custom of greeting each other with a warm hug and a kiss on both cheeks.

“The people in Brazil are so warm, to greet you they kiss on both cheeks. At first it was a little strange, especially with men,” she said. “When you put a hand out to shake, they just pull you in. Now I am the one who is always giving hugs,” she added with a smile.

“The food was good and pretty cheap, a whole sack of onions cost about one Real, which is about 33 cents, she said. Their basic foods are black beans and rice, and a lot of the deserts are cream or milk based, she said.

When The Montanian asked if there were any foods she found weird or exotic, Runyan thought for a moment. “I ate beef intestines, which is called ‘Mondongo.’ They make them into a soup (much like Mexican Menudo.) It was disgusting, I did not like it,” she said with a grin.

Breeanna got to visit beautiful beaches. One, she said, was the longest beach in the world. “It starts in Brazil and goes 150 miles all the way down to Uruguay,”she said.

She also attended several concerts by some of Brazil’s most popular bands, and she got to visit Florianopolis, an island which she said is one of the nicest places in the whole country.

Not surprisingly, Runyan said that she would like to do more traveling, putting Portugal, Bermuda and Belgium at the top of her list. “I love Brazil, and I love the culture, she said, but Montana is home and I really can’t say which one is better. The thing I really liked was how comfortable I felt, how widely accepted I was. I never felt uncomfortable there.”

The Rotary Club of Kootenai Valley hosted an exchange student from Taiwan for the year while Runyan was in Brazil.

For more information about Rotary youth exchange programs visit https://portal.clubrun ner.ca/50013/SitePage/youth-exchange or contact a local Rotarian.