Ray Hernandez is outgoing, magnetic, and a gifted guitarist. Like any exchange student, he had some doubts about leaving the familiarity of his home in Spain to embrace the unknown of an exchange year in the US. Fortunately for Ray, that one leap of faith has completely transformed his world, bringing him a renewed sense of self, a revived purpose and focus, and a $60,000 scholarship to attend Oregon State University!!
While just about every student worries about which classes they’ll take, the friends they’ll make, and whether or not they’ll get along with their host family, Ray had unique concerns.
As a transgender senior, Ray wondered if he would be able to find a supportive host family during his program.
What he found exceeded his wildest dreams: an inclusive school, community, and host family that gave him a new lease on life!
“When I came here, I found a completely different environment,” shares Ray. “I’ve had more opportunities here than I’ve ever had anywhere!”
One particularly impactful experience was the opportunity to attend the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Conference, held in Michigan. Ray was astounded by the myriad of people from all walks of life, supporting and learning from one another.
“There were all these people being proud of who they are,” remembers Ray, “and a lot of information about all kinds of topics that helped me see things in a new way, and to see myself from a healthy perspective.”
As Ray shuffled past doctors, lawyers, philanthropists, and so on, he developed a new vision of what his future could look like and who he could become. He became passionate about extending his time in the US by applying for Oregon State University, which is just a few minutes away from his host home. With that new vision came a renewed work ethic, and suddenly it was a whole new Ray.
“He is such a character,” shares Lorena, “and when he first got here, he didn’t worry too much about school work. He had fun with friends and playing soccer, but he didn’t have plans for an academic future.”
Snowboarding, with Lorena’s nephew
Ray agreed, saying that he was never sure what his future would hold, and that he didn’t have a clear picture for any of it. Once a future at OSU was within the realm of possibility, Ray knew that it would take a scholarship to make his dream come true. SO, he buckled down and got to work!
“We talked about what it would take,” remembers Lorena, “and I said you HAVE to get your grades up if you’re going to go for this!”
And Ray DID, working hard to raise his grades from nearly failing to A’s and B’s!
Lorena also helped coach Ray in preparation for the interview process, so that by the time he walked into that room, he was ready. What was intended to be a 30 minute interview became a full hour, and it’s no surprise that the selection committee was captivated by Ray’s story!
“That’s just him,” shares LC Susie Foster, “he can’t walk into an area without people wanting to talk to him. Everybody loves him… he’s got that captivating personality.”
Host mom Lorena agrees.
“Ray has this gigantic personality. It’s just been a great experience hosting him, he’s a gem.”
Ray says he’s thrilled to be able to continue to learn and grow in the Corvallis community in particular, which has become a second home and a place where he can truly be himself.
“Everyone here respects me,” shares Ray, “and that’s a relief. I’m able to live the life I’ve always dreamed of.”
Ray is an old soul, in a way, who recognizes that all seasons of his life have had a purpose.
“None of my time in the past was wasted, it was all working together to make me who I am,” shares Ray. “I’m becoming the person I’ve always dreamed about becoming, and I’m just happy. My world has changed so much in 7 months, it’s unbelievable.”
Scuba diving in Honduras for Thanksgiving
While Ray’s experiences on exchange have breathed new life into his personal plans, they have also fueled a new passion for activism.
Ray shares that one of the main things he wants to do is to encourage and help other people who may be struggling.
“I want people to be proud of themselves,” shares Ray, “and I want to change their lives in a meaningful way. Whether I stay here or go back to Spain, I want to help people.”
An enormous part of Ray’s successful stay in the US is due to his incredible host family, who was hand-picked by an insightful coordinator. LC Susie Foster shares that she knew exactly the person to reach out to when seeking the perfect home for Ray.
“Lorena is one of the movers and shakers I know,” shared Susie. As a well-known lawyer in the Corvallis community, Lorena has personally fought and won for equality in the state of Oregon, often in support of people with non-binary gender identities. “She’s just incredible,” shares Susie, “And Ray and Lorena are inseparable – they’re both these social justice fighters!”
Ray agrees that his host family has been the life-blood of his experience. “They basically adopted me, and they feel like family for me.”
Host mom Lorena has a unique perspective on Ray’s gender identity journey, since she has walked this same road with her brother, who is a well-known advocate in the transgender community. She was able to personally relate not only to Ray’s experiences, but also to the natural questions, concerns, and fears of his natural parents.
Lorena explained an analogy that helped her better understand the transgender situation.
“When you’re left-handed,” shared Lorena, “if people force you to be right-handed, you’re never going to be happy… because you’re spending all your life energy trying to write with your right hand!” It’s the same thing, Lorena says, about asking someone to conform to an identity that doesn’t feel natural to them. “As soon as you let them be who they are, they’re going to be a totally different person.”
And while the exchange year is always difficult on natural parents, who must part with their child for what can feel like a lifetime, Ray’s parents couldn’t be prouder of him.
“Mom and dad are really proud of me, really happy because they see that I’m happy too,” shares Ray. “That’s another thing that I really love. My relationship with my parents has only gotten stronger.”
Ray’s is a huge success story from many angles, and it’s a beautiful reminder that our program is about never shying away from learning more. As an organization committed to fostering relationships that explore “the differences that define us as well as the similarities that unite us,” we’re reminded that “cultural diversity” extends beyond merely what country you come from. Cultural diversity is wrapped up in every part and parcel of what makes a person wholly unique.
National Director Jodi Lundell applauded Ray as a “huge success story,” not simply for the incredible scholarship he was awarded, but because of his bravery in showing up with authenticity and encouraging others to do the same.
“All people have a different point of view, and we’re not here to make all people think the same way,” shares Jodi. “But cultural exchange is about transforming and cultivating the way people think. We should never shy away from learning more about another human being, and we just may find it shapes the way we see the world going forward!”
Disneyland trip with friends and family
We’re continually amazed by our students’ ability to truly shape the world for the better, which has sparked an innovative idea!
iE-USA is currently in the development phase of a brand new “Student Ambassador Program,” which will engage and reward teen youth (both American and International) in the common goal of spreading cultural awareness and understanding.
As an “organic” grass-roots ambassador for open and honest communication, Ray’s time in the US embodies the spirit of this new student ambassador program.
Ray, congratulations! You have been an amazing ambassador and a role model, you have joined full-force in the important mission of whole-person cultural exchange and understanding, and to celebrate the culmination of your hard work, you have earned this distinguished honor of a collegiate scholarship. We are proud of you!