It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since I boarded a plane to Spain. I didn’t have any expectations then. I just wanted to get away for a little while and reconnect with myself in a place that didn’t know me, around people who had no preconception of who I was.
The decision almost came too late for me. I barely made it in time to enroll for the spring semester. But a wise friend once told me that “everything works out like it’s supposed to in the end.” And I guess for me, it did.
The idea to study abroad snuck up on me in early November. The latest deadline for most—if not all—study abroad programs, however, was mid-to-late October. It would’ve been easy to convince myself that it wasn’t meant to be, but I couldn’t afford to think that way. Once I began to imagine myself abroad, I couldn’t get the image out of my head.
I did everything possible (at that point) to make it happen:
1. I dedicated all of my efforts to coming up with a way to study abroad.
On a Saturday in November, I told my mom I wanted to study abroad. On Sunday (as in the next day)—with the help of a handful of people—I convinced her that it could happen. On Monday, my brother and I took the inbound train to Chicago with Mom, and we phoned my high school counselor from her office to discuss whether I could realistically spend a semester abroad as a freshman in high school. He said yes.
2. I found a study abroad program willing to process a late application (albeit for a bank-breaking late fee).
You know how auctions have that “going once, going twice, going three times” system in place? Well, when study abroad programs were already going seven times, I was still oblivious to the fact that semester-long study abroad was even a thing. Needless to say, I missed the very last call, and every program that my mom and I reached out to told us as much. Apparently it takes time to up-and-leave one place and settle down in another for five months. Whoops.
By the time mid-afternoon rolled around, and we had made exactly zero progress, I weakly parked myself in a corner of mom’s office, teary-eyed and deflated. My brother, who’d taken off school with me to “help out” in the search, had long given up, and my mom was feeling out of sorts, not really sure what to do with me and my outrageous demands. She didn’t ever say it like that, but I saw it for what it was, because studying abroad in Spain was an outrageous demand for a fifteen-year-old to make of her family, on the spot, and on a weekend’s notice. Most parents would’ve flicked me off like a mosquito or altogether smacked the life out of me, but I was so desperate that Mom and Dad couldn’t bear to ignore my request. At a time when high school felt like a sinking, widening, hopeless blackhole to me, leaving was the only way that I could see myself moving forward.
That thought alone fueled my determination to continue my search, to get out of dodge and far away from town. I can’t remember if I had Safari or Google to thank, but out of the blue, as I scrolled through the search results on my phone, I found Quest Exchange, a non-profit based in California that organizes programs for study abroad. I knew before we placed the call that Quest was it: my last (and only) shot. Whoever was on the other line would have to listen to me grovel until I wore her eardrums thin, and luckily she did. By some miracle, she agreed to process my application, to rush a month(s)-long process and wrap it up within two weeks.
3. I learned to improvise.
That very afternoon, just hours after getting in touch with Quest, I sat down for my interview. I can’t remember if we were coming from or going somewhere, but I remember the request for an interview came so unexpectedly that we had to duck into the lobby of a Chase bank to answer the call in time. That’s how abruptly it all went down. I had no time to process or organize my thoughts before I was sitting in an unfamiliar armchair in someone else’s lobby, video-conferencing with my new Quest counselor. It was my first Skype interview ever, but I didn’t have the room or energy to be nervous. I said everything I could think of to sell myself and to convince my counselor that I could handle the anticipated obstacles of living abroad: getting over the initial culture shock, being far away from home, going to a school where classes would be taught in a language I barely knew, etc.
I guess the interview went well enough, because later that evening, I sat at my desk listening (once again) to Science & Faith, as I wrote my personal statement and prepared the necessary materials to send off to my host family. On Tuesday, I kindly declined the invitation to go to school again and played up a severe case of the stomach flu. I had an imaginary application deadline to meet after all, and it was due ASAP.
4. I embraced my good fortune.
I believe that luck is there when you need it. Studying abroad in Spain at barely fifteen, under any other circumstances, would’ve been as fleeting as a flickering candle effortlessly snuffed out by a phantom breeze. But it wasn’t.
It’s a miracle that it wasn’t, because the cards should’ve been stacked against me:
Most programs require that students be at least 16 years old or at least a sophomore or junior in high school. Quest’s minimum age requirement was 15. Had I thought to study abroad earlier, I might not even have been eligible to apply, since Quest’s normal deadline came before my fifteenth birthday.
Most programs have some sort of language requirement: at least two years of high school Spanish or the equivalent. I had a semester of high school Spanish (1/2 of Spanish II) and two years of middle school Spanish (Spanish I). I was at a level where I struggled to read my own acceptance letter to the program. Thankfully, Quest didn’t require me to.
I was not only late to apply to the program but late to apply for a student visa. On top of that, my passport was about to expire, so we had to expedite my passport renewal AND student visa, and our Consulate General of Spain moved at the speed of a horse-drawn carriage. I don’t know if it was just me or if the consulate was actually closed for most hours of the day, but our call almost never went through. By the grace of God, I got my documentation and papers in time. It was a hassle going from the post office to the Notary Public Chicago (to notarize my documents of parental consent and something or other, maybe proof of insurance) to wherever else, but on December 11, I presented myself at the consulate to submit my student visa application, and two weeks before my flight was scheduled to take off, my visa was approved and delivered to my door. That was cutting it pretty close, even by my standards, but I made it.
I shouldn’t even have had the time to submit my application as quickly as I did, but again, luck was on my side. It just so happened that the week when all of the madness began, my school had Wednesday off due to a holiday. Add to that my parents’ willingness to let me miss a “couple” days of school (I missed exactly one day too many, but luckily the dean agreed to count that extra day as a medical excuse), and I had myself three consecutive days off of school to focus on my application and then some. I spent every single morning of the next week in the cursed library testing center, but it was worth it.
I wasn’t guaranteed acceptance or placement even after I had paid the late fee and deposited my tuition. In other words, the sister company in Spain could’ve easily come back to me with news that they could not accept my application or place me with a host family. Again, I attribute the outcome to luck. When I filled out my application, I was asked to select the region in Spain where I wished to study. I didn’t have the first clue where to pick. I could’ve opted for Barcelona, Madrid, or Sevilla, but I chose the province of Aragón without specifying a city because I figured I’d have a better chance of being placed. For one, Aragón wasn’t as popular as the Community of Madrid or Cataluña, but it was smack dab in between the two provinces, so I thought what the heck. Another reason was the accent. I wanted to be in a region where I could have at least a little hope of actually understanding the Spanish accent, and I knew from basic research that in the south of Spain, I would not.
It was towards the end of my time in Spain that I learned from my host mom just how lucky I’d gotten. My host family had signed up to host an exchange student that year, but initially, they didn’t find a match: a girl around the age of my host sister. It’s such a small world because they’d actually just passed up the chance to host a boy who applied through the same organization as me. But at the last minute, when the local coordinator reached out to them with my application, they accepted. They took a chance on me, and I’ll be forever grateful that I was placed in their home. Now, it’s mine too. To my host parents, I’m their American daughter, and to me, they’re my Spanish parents. We’re family.
5. I mentally prepared myself to start fresh on the other side of the world, confident that I would return home a better version of myself.
From the start, I was ready to be openminded, to make the most of my experience abroad. When it came time to start my adventure, I boarded my flight to Spain with the right mindset and for the right reasons, and it continues to blow my mind just how well it all turned out for me.
It’s taken me too long to share this part of my journey in writing, but no amount of time will change the fact that studying abroad was meant to be. Every obstacle that should’ve deterred me, I overcame with the support of people who will probably never know just how much they helped me change my life.