Foreign exchange student leaves permanent mark on PCM hearts

by Kinsey Phipps

Each year, the PCM school district hosts a foreign exchange student to live and study in the Prairie City-Monroe community. This year, Catalina Alamos became a Mustang. Alamos always knew she wanted to study abroad in the United States. She wanted to improve her English skills, as well as experience being in a new country on her own.

Alamos couldn’t wait to be placed in a home and embark on the adventure of a lifetime. When Alamos found out she was coming to Iowa, however, she had an interesting reaction.

“I was happy the program found a house for me, but my first thought was, ‘What is that?’ I hadn’t heard of Iowa before,” Alamos said.

A group of friends bid farewell to Catalina Alamos at the Des Moines International Airport on Jan. 28. /by Stacy Hartson

Little did she know, small town Iowa would soon become her second home.

When Alamos left her hometown of Racangua, Chile in August of 2017, she left everything she knew. Her nerves set in.

“I was freaking out. I didn’t know anyone. It was too hard to talk to people because I couldn’t understand English well. I was scared of not having good friends; that was the hardest thing for me,” Alamos said.

Shortly after walking the halls of PCM High School, Alamos became friends with nearly everyone she encountered. Someone who became very close with Alamos was senior Amaya Hartson. Alamos and Hartson were in eighth period study hall together when they were introduced. After that, the two quickly became fast friends.
Hartson said, “She’s my best friend. I can go to her for anything.”

Alamos made the most of her time at PCM, attending nearly every sporting event she could.

“The best memories are the basketball games messing around with all of my friends,” Alamos said.

A couple months after living in Prairie City, problems with Alamos’ host family led her to the Shannon’s. Jeff Shannon is the Director of Facilities at PCM, and he and his wife were eager to take her in.

Besides the birth of our own children, it was the greatest experience of our lives. She is the sweetest kid we’ve ever met. She made the transition very easy,” Shannon said. “We always knew who she was with, where she was, and when she was going to be home. She earned our trust from the minute she walked in the house and never did anything to damage that relationship.”

In November, Alamos got word from her school in Chile that if she didn’t return home early, she would have to redo her entire junior year. It was important for Alamos to be able to graduate with her friends at home, so she decided to return in late January.

On Jan. 28, Alamos went to the Des Moines International Airport accompanied by many friends she met along the way and her newfound family, the Shannon’s. Alamos boarded the airplane, bidding farewell to her second home in Iowa.

Right now we miss everything. The things that stick out the most would be late night chats with [Alamos] telling us about her family. She told us so many stories about them, we almost thought we knew them,” Shannon said. “We miss her smile and laugh.  We miss getting a hug from her every night before she went to her bedroom.  My kids miss having a sister in the house.  My dog is even missing her.”

Many are missing Alamos’ infectious happiness, but it won’t be long until she is back. Alamos has already planned a trip to return to Iowa in July, and she is looking at colleges in the United States as well.

“I can’t just go pick her up and hang out with her,” Hartson said. “She won’t be here, but she’s still here for me.

Alamos touched the hearts of so many in the PCM community. When she returns, those who knew and loved her will be ready to welcome her with open arms.