Story written by Miranda Meyer, IEM/MPA, ’18

Spanish and I have a love/hate relationship. Some days I absolutely love listening to it, speaking it, and thinking about it. Other days, I struggle to come up with words, my pronunciation is terrible, and if I hear one more song in Spanish I want to scream.

I initially went to school for a degree in Psychology and Religion, but after the first semester, I felt like something was missing. It wasn’t until my first Spanish class in college that I realized what it was: language. I was so drawn to it that by the second semester I had changed my focus to International Studies and Spanish. Through my program, I was able to travel to Peru, study abroad for a full year in Costa Rica and take short trips to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama. Spanish continually opened new doors for me. When graduation approached, I was still unclear about what I wanted to do, but I knew it had to include helping people and using my language skills. I interviewed for a job working with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Dakota and because of my language skills and experience in Central America was offered a 2-year position as cultural liaison for their sister church in Nicaragua.

I was excited and nervous because I did not know if my Spanish was good enough to be leading group trips and interpreting, but I was up for the challenge. My time in Nicaragua was the most interesting and difficult period of my life. My Spanish excelled, I formed close relationships with locals, and I felt I was doing what I had set out to do. I worked connecting Americans with Nicaraguan culture by leading group trips into rural Nicaragua. I was able to get people out of their comfort zones and help erase negative Latin and American culture stereotypes. I also had the opportunity to volunteer with foster children and people living with HIV. It was an extremely rewarding job, but due to a series of very unfortunate events, I chose to return home early. While my Spanish was the best it had ever been, I did not want to speak it or hear it. I had experienced a lot in a short amount of time while in Nicaragua and Spanish was a reminder of it, so I decided to take a break. I spent some time reorganizing my life plans before an opportunity arose to work in an HIV clinic with people from diverse backgrounds: homeless, transgender, young, old, and Latino. The job sought a Spanish speaker with HIV experience; I felt I was the perfect candidate and it did align with two of my oldest goals: helping people and using my language skills. Although, my Spanish was a bit rusty and I was hesitant to start speaking it again on a regular basis, I applied.  

I was offered the position so I drove from Iowa to California for a job that I would stick with for the next four years. Because of my Spanish skills, I was given the chance to be in a position to have an impact on people who had given up hope. The program provided HIV medication to low income and undocumented people. Many patients told me that the first appointment they had with me was a little intimidating and confusing. They did not expect a white, blond, blue-eyed American to want to help, let alone to speak Spanish. The minute I began speaking, however, I could see the relief in their face followed by more than one “muchas gracias.” Because of Spanish I was able to connect people with care they desperately needed. I am grateful that I was able to cultivate my language skills again and use language in ways so beneficial not even I can know.

Almost one year after leaving that position, I received a letter in the mail from a Spanish-speaking patient who recently passed away. I was so surprised to receive the letter after so much time had passed. When I opened it up, I found a small card with the word “Gracias.