On the evening of Saturday, Dec. 15, Sophia Espinoza’s dream took one big step closer to becoming reality. The Enterprise High School freshman and Wallowa County Rotary Club’s 2020-2021 foreign exchange student must raise $5,000 to help finance her junior year of study abroad.

Her Singing Sweets Concert and Dessert Bar fundraiser at the Odd Fellow’s Hall put her a little more than halfway towards her goal. She has also raised funds through donations, including Soroptimists and her Fundly.com site.

Espinoza has set her sights on study in Japan, with South Korea and India as alternative choices. Her chance of going to Japan for her junior year abroad is about 85 percent.

“The Japanese live such a different life than many of us do,” she said. “They are precise and meticulous about the things and work that encompass most of their lives. They have a strong work ethic. And they respect their elders and care deeply about their families. I want to learn more about the people and their cultures.”

A budding artist and writer, Espinoza finds the traditional art of Japan, as well as that of South Korea and India, inspiring. “The Japanese work done on wooden blocks is insanely awesome,” she said. “There is so much detail and meaning in very piece.”

Espinoza grew up in the Seattle area. She lived and went to school in a diverse community with a high percentage of Asian families. Along the way, she made friends, learned about their cultures, and can even speak a little Japanese.

Fate brought her family to Wallowa County about two years ago. “We were looking for a place to live, and my Mom was looking for a job,” she said. “We could find places to live but there were no jobs. And Mom could find a job, but no place we could afford to live.” Finally, friends in Wallowa County offered housing. Sophia, her two sisters, and her Mom packed up and moved here.

It hasn’t been easy, but the family is making a go of it.

“It’s Wallowa County. It’s beautiful, and it’s a close-knit, supportive community. You simply do what you have to do to live here,” said Jessica Espinoza, Sophia’s mom. Bedeviled by a newly-diagnosed auto-immune disease, Jessica works a variety of jobs, and Gianna, her eldest daughter and an Enterprise High School senior who is bound for Portland State University in the fall, contributes as well. “It’s the Wallowa County way,” Jessica said.

The Wallowa County Rotary Club’s exchange student committee found Sophia to be “a polished, knowledgeable, well-prepared and resourceful candidate who showed a great deal of initiative and composure,” said committee chair Judy Allen. “When you are far away from home in a foreign country, those qualities are very important.” Sophia’s strong interest in Japanese culture and art was also a deciding factor.

“My mother has been the driving force in my life,” Sophia said. “A lot of time I’d want to have everything done for me. But she told me that if I want something, I have to go get it for myself. She helped me believe in myself.”

That includes believing that she will be living and studying in Japan in 2020-2021, with a little more help from her Wallowa County friends.

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