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Former Costa Rica exchange student returns to Worthington for Christmas

Paula Ramirez (seated) has returned to Worthington to visit Le Lucht, who holds a picture of a group of Costa Rican exchange students -- which included Ramirez -- from 15 years ago.

WORTHINGTON -- Fifteen years ago, Paula Ramirez visited Worthington as an exchange student.

Now, all these years later, she has returned for the holiday season.

"It's just like another daughter," said Le Lucht, coordinator of multicultural activities and diversity at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Worthington campus. "She has a Christmas stocking that she will hang that has her name on it that she will hang by everybody else's stocking. Santa will bring things to her just like Santa brings to all my adult kids and grandkids. I'm just thrilled to death that she's here."

Ramirez is from Cartago, Costa Rico, where the weather is much warmer than in southwest Minnesota.

"For me, it's very exciting because I will have a very white Christmas -- my first white Christmas," she said. "I will enjoy it a lot. I expect to have an excellent good time, to eat turkey because I have never eaten that kind of food."

As part of an exchange program with Ramirez's school -- Sagrado Corazon de Jesus -- and Worthington High School, a group of Costa Rican students came to Worthington 15 years ago.

"What it was, it was a school-to-school exchange between her high school and the high school here in Worthington," Lucht explained. "The students in Costa Rica who were coming on the school-to-school exchange, there were some older students as well. I had just moved from the high school to Minnesota West. The teacher that was hired after me at the high school had arranged the exchange. I was a connecting piece of it with the older students. We had some Minnesota West students that were part of it as well."

The students came during their break, which was in the middle of winter.

"Our country has warm weather," Ramirez said. "When I came here, I brought normal sweaters. They gave me a warm coat. We weren't prepared. This time I learned. I brought a lot of scarves.

"We went snowmobiling and skating and all those things with the snow. It's a totally different experience because our weather is totally different. To come here and do those things, it's very different."

Lucht remembers one of the first nights the students were all together.

"It was the first time for just about all of them to see the snow and experience winter," Lucht said.

"That year, we had lots of snow. One of the first nights, we had a big gathering at our house. And it had just snowed, so all of them -- especially the Costa Rica kids -- went out the door and laid down in the middle of the snow and they were all making snow angels. Many of them didn't have coats on because they didn't think you had to stay warm and dry."

The students, who were of all ages, were matched with a Worthington student of roughly the same age.

"The students were paired with students and really the families were paired," Lucht said. "Then, what happened was, when they came in January, which is their summer break, our students went back with exactly the same families. The idea was they would get a longer period of time to bond."

In June, the Worthington students went to Costa Rica to do the same.

"I was one of the host families as well because our son, Matt, was a junior at the high school here in Worthington," Lucht said. "He was paired with Hector Brenes Cordero; that was his student pair. I was not only a host mom, but then I was one of the leaders, too."

When Lucht went down to Costa Rica, she was supposed to stay with a teacher. However, Ramirez's Worthington partner couldn't make the trip.

"My sister, Katie, couldn't come back to Costa Rica," Ramirez said. "So, Le went to my house. When I came here, we met, but when we stayed in Costa Rica, she stayed in my house."

"They said, 'We have our house all ready and Katie can't come; will you come and be her sister?' I was more like her mom," Lucht said. "The families just really bonded well."

Since then, the two have kept in contact.

"We are always in contact with email or Skype," Ramirez said. "For me, it's very important. To come back brings back a lot of good feelings."

Ramirez, though, hadn't been back since that first trip 15 years ago.

"Because of working and studying I couldn't come; I didn't have money," she said. "This time, I have some money. I said, 'This time I need to go because you never know when you will have the opportunities.' Le came to Costa Rica in June, so I decided to go to Le's house."

Being in Worthington left a lasting impression of Ramirez -- so much so that she opted to study a new language.

"After I came here and I came back to Costa Rica, I decided I needed to learn English," she said. "When I came here the first time, I didn't know anything, just 'hello' and 'goodbye.' I studied at an English institute and I learned there, and then in my career in tourism I practiced a lot when I made reservations for tours and for groups."

Ramirez has worked in the tourism industry in Costa Rica but is now employed in marketing for Canet, an international company.

While it was Ramirez's first time back to Worthington, the two families had recently spent time together.

"In June, we took our entire family to Costa Rica," Lucht said. "There were 17 of us that went, and we had rented a home on the Pacific side. Paula and her sister and the sister's fiancé came and spent a few days with us. They invited us to go back to Cartago and to see the rest of the family, so we connected that way. Paula had said she turned 30 a week ago, and for her 30th birthday she said, 'I want to come back to Minnesota."'

While Ramirez is fluent in English, her parents are not. But that didn't stop them from having a good time with their Minnesota friends.

"My mother and father don't speak English -- they communicated, but I don't know how," Ramirez said. "It's funny when people don't know the language but have connection. It's so beautiful that even if you don't know the language, you can communicate and have a good time."

Even though Lucht's husband, Larry, couldn't speak Spanish, the families knew what the others were saying.

"For Larry, too, he said it was on a level that, even though he couldn't speak the language, he knew just what was being communicated," Lucht said. "When we got back there this summer, her mom and dad brought out a photo album, and it's all these pictures and every letter that we had exchanged back and forth. It was just truly heartwarming. It was an awesome experience."

Ramirez will be in the U.S. for two weeks, which will include trips to see Lucht's family -- and a visit with her Worthington sister from years ago.

Her trip included a stop to Buffalo Billfold. She bought a purse 15 years ago and has been carrying that piece from Worthington around with her for years.

And for Lucht, it made the holidays even more special to have an addition to the celebration.

"It was truly a match made in heaven," Lucht said. "It was intended to be. We were even talking about this -- families are the same the world over. The same memories you create, but then also families have issues, too. To be able to share those intimate kinds of things with a family, it is truly family."

Daily Globe Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.