Theresa Finneran of Schaumburg heads to the University of Notre Dame next month as an incoming freshman, but this much she knows: studying abroad is definitely in her future.
The Schaumburg High School graduate spent 11 days last month in Costa Rica as part of a Spanish exchange trip sponsored by the school.
"I've definitely got the bug," Theresa says. "After going on this trip, I want to pursue Spanish in college and definitely travel abroad."
Spanish teacher Gabrielle Drafall led Theresa and her classmates on the immersion trip. This was the ninth year for Schaumburg students and Drafall's 11th year overall, after having started the exchange program at Hoffman Estates High School.
Her colleagues at Palatine and Conant high schools now also offer similar trips for their advanced language students.
"It's a chance for students to practice their Spanish and experience another culture, firsthand," Drafall says. "But it also solidifies their interest and passion for another language."
Theresa, whose two older sisters also had traveled with Drafall to Spanish-speaking countries, put it this way: "I wanted to go on some adventures."
This time, Drafall led 24 students to Costa Rica. For the first five days, they were enrolled in Spanish immersion classes and stayed with families in Escazu, a suburb of San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.
"It was good because it forced us to speak Spanish," Theresa says. "When you're in school, there's not as much time to practice our speaking with so many kids in the class."
They spent their days practicing their Spanish and exploring the areas around Escazu, Drafall says, but they also found time to take a dance class and a cooking class, and tour a coffee plantation.
"One of the highlights was volunteering at Obras del Espíritu Santo," Drafall says, "where the students donated greatly-needed school supplies, worked in their warehouse, and played with the children from the orphanage."
Theresa said she came away with fond memories of playing with children -- and with some cherished photos.
"They were so excited to have their pictures taken," she said. "They don't see many cameras there."
The group spent a night in the rain forest and interacted with its native animals, including howler monkeys, iguanas and sloths. They also went white-water rafting on the Sarapiqui River through the jungle.
After their immersion experience, the group returned to the highlands and stayed in a resort at the foot of the Arenal volcano.
They took time to relax in Baldi Hot Springs Spa -- where the waters are naturally heated by the active volcano -- before spending the last two days at a resort on the Pacific Coast, which offered students the chance to go snorkeling or zip-lining.
"I love traveling with students and being involved in so many firsts in their lives," Drafall says. "It's so rewarding to see them develop confidence in their Spanish skills and to grow as young adults."