I left Belfast city airport to set off for my Colorado exchange and after 20 hours of travelling in cars, planes and buses I finally arrived at Colorado State University late on 20th June 2015. The first few days of my exchange were to be spent at the university with other exchangees from Scotland (Andrew) and Wales (Angharad and Laura) so we could participate in the 4H conference that was taking place at the university.
4H is the American equivalent to Young Farmers Clubs and so our first few days were very informative as we learnt all about the similarities and differences that our two organisations have. The most prominent difference in the organisations was the age range as 4H runs from 8-18 years old, making each of us on the exchange a good bit older than those in 4H. But in true Young Farmer style we did not let that stop us getting involved and getting to know some of their members. On Monday while we set up for the registration, the 4H State Officers took some time out to teach us the art of “Swing Dancing” which is a very popular dance there and a skill that we would need later in the conference.
For the next couple of days at the conference we were allowed to explore the campus (located in Fort Collins) and the nearby area as well as partaking in some of the conference activities. Tuesday was the welcome night when each of the State Officers were introduced and we had some fun with a hypnotist who was ready to put some 4H member through their paces. Wednesday saw us meet up with Courtney Loflin (the IFYE Co-ordinator in Colorado) who introduced us to the staff in 4H and the staff in the IFYE (International Foreign Youth Exchange) programme. We managed to visit the stock judging pavilions to watch some of the judging take part and got speaking to the judges as well to find out what they are looking for in their animals compared to us. The judges told us that they have to listen to all 200 members giving their reasons which is an extremely time consuming process, compare to our judges at home that each deal with only one age range and have considerably fewer reasons to listen to. The rest of our day was spent on workshops with the 4H members and a rather eventful water fight after which Courtney took us out for dinner. Thursday was time to work. Upon arrival Courtney had informed us that we had a presentation to give based on our countries and our YFC back home. Our morning was spent cramming for that and after lunch we delivered our presentation to a group of 60+ members and officers. We received some great feedback from some of the younger members who had lots of questions for us about the exchange programme we were on. Thursday night saw us get dressed up for the 4H banquet and awards ceremony in which we each got presented with a certificate from Courtney and required to give an impromptu speech.
Friday finally arrived and it was time to meet our host families. Laura (Wales) and I were very fortunate that both our families were close friends and so we would be seeing much more of each other, while we had to say goodbye to Andrew and Angharad.
My host family (Amanda and kids) came to collect Laura and I from the university and after lunch with Laura’s family we headed down to Brighton. After meeting some family members and seeing their house, we packed a bag and headed back to Laura’s to stay the night. A BBQ and a lot of questions later and it was time for bed. My first weekend with my host family was to be very exciting as their oldest son Bryce celebrated his 7th birthday. Saturday and Sunday went past in a flash between playing with the kids, building a treehouse, making Batman capes and the big party it was a great start to my stay with the family.
Monday was very relaxed allowing me time to recover from my busy weekend and a lovely family birthday meal that night was a great end to the day.
Tuesday I became a chef as Amanda taught me to make some very traditional American foods for our camping trip that weekend. Foods that included ‘Biscuits and Gravy’, ‘breakfast burritos’ and a ‘breakfast casserole’… recipes that I can recreate at home for friends and family. After some packing we headed to bed for an early start the next morning.
Early Wednesday morning we headed off for our 5 day camping trip to State Forest State Park just outside of Walden. This area is filled with amazing scenery and best of all has no reception for mobiles which meant we had 5 technology free days ahead. Lots of Damon and Amanda’s friends were also staying on the same site as us so it was a great chance to meet everyone. We set up camp and made dinner on a campfire before playing games that night. Thursday we set off to the nearby visitor centre to begin our 3 mile hike with some of Damon and Amanda’s friends. There was a beautiful picnic spot near the lake at the end for us to stop and have lunch. Our evening was very relaxed with reading, games and dinner. Friday was our lazy day of camping as we stayed around the campsite all day. We left briefly in old clothes to take a run on 4 wheelers. This was my first time on one and it was really enjoyable. We got to see some more of the beautiful scenery and even stopped at specific areas to enjoy the view.
Saturday saw us celebrating the 4th July by heading off on our big hike. We packed our lunches, and I out on my sun cream and bug spray and we headed off on the 4 wheelers. Our campsite would have been at approx. 8000-8500 elevation, however we rode up to 10,000 elevation before parking up to begin the hike. For my first ‘big’ hike I was pretty chuffed with myself, we hiked for 2 miles and gained 2500 feet of elevation while hiking. The view from our stopping place was amazing, and definitely made me feel very small in such a vast area. On my first proper hike I had managed to make it to 12,500 feet above sea level and was officially above tree level looking down on the rest of Colorado. My hike was topped off perfectly by a tradition rain and hail storm as we rode the 4 wheelers back down, just to remind me where I was actually from. My last night in camp was celebrating that fact that I had managed to hike that mountain and enjoying a lovely steak dinner cooked on the campfire. After a stress free and quiet morning on Sunday we
headed back for home to the comfort of a sofa and a shower.
My exchange so far has been amazing and more than I could have imagined. I would like to thank County Londonderry YFC for Sponsorship and most importantly I would like to thank my family and friends for supporting me throughout the lead up to this and since I have been gone, as well as the Balcerak family for being amazing hosts and showing me just what Colorado has to offer.