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Wilsonville High junior Haley Budroe enjoys her abbreviated time in South Korea.

COURTESY PHOTO - Haley Budroe, middle, arriving in South Korea for her stay there through the Rotary Club of Wilsonville's exchange program.

It was supposed to be the most enlightening experience of Wilsonville High junior Haley Budroe's life. And for a few months, expectations equaled reality.

Yet there she was — isolated in her host family's apartment in Yeoju, South Korea, with little to do but watch Netflix, text her friends and hone her Korean language skills.

Her cultural immersion was reduced to quarantine.

"I wasn't scared. There weren't any cases in Yeoju, and there still hasn't been," Budroe said. "I would say I was more disappointed that it happened the year I was there. We didn't get to go on (many) trips. We were also quarantined, so we weren't allowed to go outside for a month."

Budroe participated in the Rotary Club of Wilsonville's exchange program in the second half of 2019 and early 2020 but her trip was cut short due to restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Budroe's interest in the Rotary program was piqued in seventh grade when her sister attended a seminar to learn about the program. So when Budroe entered high school, she decided to apply. After a year of orientation, it came time for her to choose a destination — and Budroe picked South Korea. Though she takes Japanese classes in school, she wanted to learn Korean.

"I think one of the main reasons was I really like the language. It's nice-sounding to me," Budroe said. "The chance to go to the country and learn the language fluently got me really excited."

When she arrived in Yeoju in July, Budroe was struck by the size of the city in comparison to Wilsonville (even though locals called the city of over 100,000 residents a "small town"). She also appreciated how welcoming her host families, students at the school she attended, and other locals were to her and other exchange participants.

"One homeroom teacher, he would sit with us while the other students were doing work, and he would talk with us about our interests and get to know us," Budroe said. "If I was working on Korean, I would work with students who would help me learn Korean."

Budroe also became fast friends with her fellow exchange students, who she still keeps in touch with. There, they often visited the local karaoke spot, shopped and went out to dinner together.

"My best memories were the times I spent with them," Budroe said.

She also enjoyed visiting Seoul on a few occasions.

"It's huge. There's a lot of people and foreigners. In the city of Yeoju there weren't a lot of foreigners. Most of the people there were Korean," Budroe said. "It's weird to hear English down the street because we're so used to hearing (Korean)."

Budroe's experience on the other side of the world was great through 2019. But in 2020, things quickly changed.

She first heard of COVID-19 in January. Soon after that, Budroe's skiing field trip was canceled.

Budroe after that, school closed and program coordinators eventually forbade exchange students from leaving their host parents' homes. However, Budroe briefly escaped her confines a few times.

"It was stuffy being kept inside, but occasionally I would sneak out and wear a mask to stay safe and maybe go to a convenience store to get some juice," she said.

While Budroe felt disappointed and frustrated, her mom, Jean Budroe, felt helpless and didn't know whether to bring her daughter home or not, particularly as the crisis began to hit the United States harder than South Korea.

But Jean didn't want to risk her daughter being barred from returning entirely due to countrywide travel restrictions. So, in late March, Budroe returned home.

"It was a difficult decision for us to bring her home because I didn't want to cut her experience off prematurely," Jean said. "Shortly after we brought her back, the (Rotary) district in South Korea ordered the kids to go home."

Despite the unfortunate circumstance, Budroe enjoyed the experience overall and would love to return.

"I would definitely do it again if I have the chance," she said.

And if she does, Budroe has a place to stay.

"One host family adopted me as their own host student. They said, 'next time you come to Korea, don't stay at a hotel. Stay at our house,' " she said. "They were warm and made the experience great."


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