Foreign exchange student recalls time at Berryville
When Olivia Gauna returned to Berryville last month, she was overwhelmed by how many of her former classmates came to a class reunion to see her.
Gauna's fiancÚ, Patrick Mueller, guessed that she had 20 to 30 good friends who met up at the reunion.
"It was one of the best moments of my life," Gauna said.
Gauna studied at Berryville High School in 1978 and 1979 as one of the school's first foreign exchange students. She came to Berryville from Monterrey, Mexico, and stayed with Joe Mills and his then-wife, Jennifer Culvin.
Mills recalled when he saw Gauna for the first time, saying they didn't need to speak the same language to understand each other.
"When she got off the plane, I smiled at her and she smiled at me and we just laughed," Mills said.
Though Gauna knew only basic English when she arrived in Berryville, she said she picked up on the language fairly quickly. She learned fast, Gauna said, because Mills and Culvin spoke mostly English at home.
"After three or four months, I realized I was thinking in English. That's when I knew I was learning. It was an amazing experience," Gauna said.
Gauna recalled quickly bonding with Mills, Culvin and their children, calling them her American family.
"They are my parents, and I have a brother and a sister here," Gauna said.
She thanked Mills and Culvin for helping her learn English. At first, Gauna said, it was difficult to adjust to a new culture. Culvin noted how Gauna had a tough time adjusting to American food and said Gauna experienced homesickness at times.
"I was homesick sometimes," Gauna said, recalling how her parents visited Berryville after New Year's Eve. "It was hard seeing them go back home, but I felt really lucky and wanted to finish my school year."
Gauna's family, Mills added, called her every Saturday morning.
Gauna remembered going to sporting events in Berryville, saying she has fond memories of football and basketball games.
"It was wonderful. I enjoyed it," Gauna said.
Culvin credited Gauna with helping the family become more physically affectionate. Before Gauna came to live with them, Culvin said, she and her family were not very affectionate.
"She's a huggy, touchy, loving person. I learned that from her. She taught us to express ourselves through hugging and loving each other," Culvin said.
After leaving Berryville in 1979, Gauna returned to Mexico and obtained a degree in communications and public relations. She worked at a travel agency for years, saying she learned how to work in that role because of her experience as a foreign exchange student.
"It made a big change in my life. I've been able to be in touch with people from different countries because the language helps me," Gauna said. "It showed me that people are the same all over the world. There's good people and there's bad people."
Though Gauna and Mueller met about 20 years ago, they didn't start a romantic relationship until recently.
"We kept in touch over the years and it finally came to be that we were both available at the same time, and we remembered each other," Mueller said.
The couple will marry in February 2016 and plan to live in Texas.