Ivy Vogel

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July 20, 2004
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Educating Rita: Exchangepromises to be eye-opener

Rita Merrigan got a small glimpse of her future in June while in Machu Picchu, Peru, with her 80-year-old aunt.Merrigan, an English teacher for Spanish-speaking children at Glenwood Springs Elementary School, will return to South America in less than two weeks. This time, she'll be on her own in Bogota, Colombia, and she'll be there for one year - not seven days."The people were incredibly friendly," said Merrigan. "The vendors would walk up to us to stop and talk. They'd ask us where we were from and tell us the capital of the U.S. and the president's name."Merrigan is one of eight Colorado teachers who won the Fulbright Teacher and Administrator Exchange Program scholarship.The program has six different opportunities, including an international exchange program for qualified teachers.For one year, Merrigan will teach English to a private, all-girls school in Bogota.The Spanish-speaking Merrigan found out about her acceptance in March."I've wanted to do this for more than 10 years," Merrigan said. "This is my first step, and it's kind of like learning to swim. I'll see if I like it or not, and if I do, maybe I'll do it some more."Merrigan has always been interested in traveling and has been to Mexico more than once but hadn't been to South America until just recently."It was one of my aunt's life dreams," Merrigan said. "They were so happy to have us visit."Initially upon winning the Fulbright scholarship, Merrigan was a little nervous about being an American in Colombia, a country known for guerilla warfare and drug trafficking. However, after talking to several Colombians and visiting Peru, Merrigan feels confident that if she makes smart decisions, her experience will be invaluable."It's so different here," Merrigan said. "I can finish working on my classroom tonight, walk home by myself and think nothing of it. I won't do that there."Merrigan has spent the past few months reading about Colombia and talking to native Colombians.She has a good relationship with Nora Acero, who is the Colombian teacher who will be taking over for Merrigan."I'll probably feel a little culture shock, but I'm not worried about my safety," Merrigan said.Merrigan is looking forward to complete immersion in another culture because she will experience the culture firsthand rather than observing it from a hotel room. One way to accept cultural diversity is to be exposed to it, Merrigan said."My experience in Colombia will be good for the world," Merrigan said. "Maybe I can't change the world but I can make this much of a difference by knowing a different culture. It's a way of looking at things - not just seeing but living." Merrigan is accustomed to teaching students from all cultural backgrounds. As a high school teacher, Merrigan watched students lash out at other students because of cultural differences."Not knowing what's outside your city or county limits you to prejudices," Merrigan said.Merrigan is definitely going beyond Garfield County and experiencing something out of her comfort zone.Instead of teaching English to students who need English to survive, Merrigan will teach English to students who see English as a life enhancement."I think having all girls will make it less flirty," Merrigan said. "We all act different without boys. Perhaps there will be less distraction."Merrigan is at a teaching conference in Denver. She will leave for Washington, D.C., in less than a week. There she will meet with 400 other teachers in the exchange program. After a few days of training, Merrigan will board the plane to Colombia."After parking the car and riding to the airport, that's when all of a sudden you realize you can't go back," Merrigan said.Contact Ivy Vogel: 945-8515, ext. 534ivogel@postindependent.comRita Merrigan will be writing a bimonthly column for the Post Independent while she's in Columbia.She's having a goodbye rafting party and picnic Sunday at Two Rivers Park.Everyone is invited and is expected to meet at the Blue Sky Adventures office in the basement of the Hotel Colorado by 3:15 p.m. For more information call Rita Merrigan at 947-0162.Everyone is invited and is expected to meet at the Blue Sky Adventures office in the basement of the Hotel Colorado by 3:15 p.m. For more information call Rita Merrigan at 947-0162.

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The Post Independent Updated Jul 20, 2004 11:18PM Published Jul 20, 2004 12:00AM Copyright 2004 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.