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As if it was yesterday, I still remember my 18 year old self, so excited to learn, to meet the world and to spread her own wings. As an adventurer born with wanderlust, I decided to leave my island of Puerto Rico back then, without speaking any English, and with only a suitcase full of dreams. And just like that, the real adventure of becoming a forever student began.
Between two jobs and daily struggles, I started to look into registering for college in NYC, but since I did not speak or write English well, (but a strong reader) I decided to apply to one of the City University of New York associate degree programs. One of the requirements was to take a test, which placed me in the ESL (English as a second language) level. Although I had to take a lot of classes that did not count as credit towards my degree, in retrospect, I eventually realized how much they actually did help me with my future full-time career – writing. Everything for me started at Borough of Manhattan Community College, which ironically (if you ride the NYC subway, you will eventually see it) has the slogan, “Start here and go anywhere” and this was really the start of a future that I never even dreamed of or could have imagined at the time.
Even with all the challenges of learning English and feeling so discouraged that I seriously considered quitting school, I just decided to keep going no matter what. Also, a mentor helped me and pushed me to utilize the free tutoring offered. This helped me tremendously and eventually I passed the test and I was on my way to English 101! English 101 inspired me even further; I had an amazing professor who told me, “You can always learn grammar but never perspective, and Olga you have tons of that.” It was then that everything started to fall into place for me in school. I met a professor from Spain who was in charge of the Acentos Magazine of the school and the Latino Society Club. He loved the Spanish poetry that I submitted for the magazine and eventually I registered for an advanced Spanish class about poetry and literature.
This is how I learned about the study abroad opportunity to Spain, which in all honesty, I could not afford. My family definitely couldn’t help and I was feeling a little discouraged. I started researching and, with the help of this professor, I got a grant, which was not enough but then I applied for a scholarship from Barnes and Nobles, (which I won) and the combination allowed me to be able to study abroad. I was super happy and finally got to embark on my first international trip, the one that would forever change my life.
I still remember myself on that plane, I had just turned 19. This trip sparked so many new emotions, such as curiosity, wonder, and passion for the unknown. I got to study at the University of Oviedo in Asturias, Spain. Oviedo (mi pequeña vestuta), a small but charming city that is still today an unforgettable and special place for me, was where I started to learn so much….not only about others, but also about myself.
This study abroad experience helped me to appreciate other cultures, understand cultural differences, how to handle myself in different situations, to plan small trips and maximize my free time. But it was interacting with others, and making friends of a lifetime (many with whom I am still in contact today 12 years later), that more than anything made me fall in love with travel. I got infected with the travel bug and, ever since then, I’ve never stopped traveling.
This is why, for every opportunity that I get as a speaker (or just having one on one conversations), I always encourage teenagers to visit their school offices in order to learn about what opportunities the school provides, to get mentors, to apply for programs, to just simply expand their horizons.
Who would have thought that the girl who left that small town of Bayamón in Puerto Rico, alone at 18 years old, was going to not only go to study abroad in Spain, but soon after travel to China with the US China Education Council and that the same girl who failed her initial ESL course was going to eventually become an editor of a print magazine, a full-time travel writer/blogger and speaker.
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As a Latina digital nomad traveling around the world, now I also get to encourage other women through the community I started called Latinas Who Travel.
Our mission is to inspire and support Latinas to travel the world and see it for what it is – a learning opportunity (even if it is not on study abroad), providing resources and tips since I am a living proof that traveling is transformative!
Now as I look back, I can better understand why I am always driven to delve into new cultures, learn important words and phrases in every country I visit, just fascinated and immersed in the lifestyle, the food and about traveling off-the-beaten-path like a local. It is because that study abroad opportunity turned me into a forever student and I still behave as if on “Study Abroad” but it’s my full-time career.
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Eloquently said by Steve Jobs, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Well, study abroad did just that for me – it forever linked my past studies with my future passion and career!
P.S. Dreams in Heels and Latinas Who Travel supports the #Studyabroadbecause initiative and we are always excited to be part of it. We attended The Travel Bloggers Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship in 2017. Be part of the movement and engage young people about the transformative power of travel and study abroad. Thank you.