¡Buenos Días! Guten Tag! Nǐ hǎo!
Student embraces adventure of global learning
Now a full-time GCC student, majoring in English, Miguel (“Sally”) Salazar grew up in a family of four brothers, many of whom were into the sciences: physics, math. Though Miguel was a good student in high school, his goals were uniquely his own. When he was just a teenager, he announced to his family that he wanted to move to Germany to study.
“Crazy,” they thought. Shouldn’t he be right here at home, getting ready to go to college? Then there was the small matter of the cost: $12,000 for a single academic year. It was clear that, even with a part-time job at the Hole in the Wall restaurant in Phoenix, it would require years of toil for Miguel to save that kind of money.
It was an audacious goal.
Yet, by the time he was sixteen, Miguel found himself over 5,000 miles away from home. In Germany. Alone. He had gotten there on his own steam, winning a scholarship that paid for all of the costs.
Merit-based, the scholarship program, the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX), required applicants to maintain a 3.5 GPA throughout high school, to get recommendations from all teachers and the principal and to submit an essay. The theme of the essay: Why should you be chosen to represent the United States of America? In writing his essay, Miguel thought about his volunteer work at DUCK (Downtown Urban Community Kids), where he had helped kids whose parents were in prison. “I can represent the United States well because I’m open-minded,” he said.
He also reflected that he took fitness very seriously, and was in good physical shape. “That could help challenge one of the biggest stereotypes Europeans have about Americans, which is that they’re all overweight and out of shape,” he postulated on his application.
No one was more surprised than Miguel himself when his bold move paid off.
The CBYX scholarship program is funded jointly by the German Bundestag and the U.S. Congress. For high school students who want to immerse themselves fully in German culture, it offers full scholarships to study abroad in Germany for a year. Miguel was thrilled; his family eventually shared the sentiment. Once in Germany, Miguel lived with a family in Wuppertal, a city in the west-central part of the country. He enrolled in the local high school, Gymnasium Sedanstrasse, along with nearly 700 other students.
He spoke no German when he arrived, and the culture shock was extreme. Still, he dove in with characteristic gusto, and stuck doggedly to the rule he had adopted for himself: “All German, all the time.” By the second semester there, he was among the top-performing students. He extended his visa, staying longer than expected, for a total of about eighteen months. The scholarship included seminars in Cologne, Berlin and other major German cities. Miguel met the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and toured the national capital building, among other outings.
Even so, it was only when Hillary Clinton and two other senators came to see the scholarship students that he grasped the enormity of his accomplishment. “Hillary was there to congratulate us,” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘This is a big deal.’” He learned that, out of the thousands who had applied for the scholarship, only 43 had been selected.
Returning from Germany, Miguel entered the Army as soon as he completed high school in 2009. While working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Fort Bliss, Texas, he was tapped as a translator and asked to help train Germans (in German) how to use American weapons systems. Only then did it occur to him he could use his language skills professionally, and new career aspirations were born. When he got out of the service in January 2012, Miguel returned to Arizona and enrolled in GCC, where two of his older brothers had attended. He likes the relaxed atmosphere, the beautiful palm trees and the open campus.
Now, he’s setting his sights on being an English teacher for foreign students. After earning his associates degree later in 2014, Miguel plans to transfer to Arizona State University to pursue a path in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. One of his models is Ken Bus, Director of International Education at GCC, who himself had stints teaching English in Iran and in Saudi Arabia.
Miguel’s second big foray into international living was in China, where he went as a volunteer to teach English to children through International Language Programs (ILP). He arrived in Shanghai in August 2013 and returned from China in December. Based in Nanjing, Miguel lived on the school grounds, in a building designated for teachers, a group of about 20 Americans (16 girls, four boys). An experienced traveler by then, Miguel did what he has become accustomed to doing: He embraced local culture. He joined the gym, began to teach himself Chinese, and hung out with Jared Brown, a fellow teacher who was equally interested in cultural immersion. “We were the only ones who tried to learn Chinese,” said Miguel.
After completing his ILP teaching gig, he parlayed his experience into a new assignment in China, teaching four high school classes of students, ages 16-18, and this time, getting paid about $32 per hour. Each class had about 80 students. Even with the large class size, Miguel wasn’t at all nervous. He started by introducing himself, describing his country and talking about his customs. “Chinese kids are shy, so if you made it fun, they’ll join in,” he said.
He immersed himself in China just as he had immersed himself in Germany when he was a teenager. He could barely say anything in Chinese when he first arrived. He can now order food, have a light, informal conversation, count to 100 and usually get the gist of the conversation when hearing two Chinese people speaking. While there, he welcomed the opportunity to converse more freely when he met a few people from Taiwan, a democracy. He spent time with his friend Jared, he listened to a lot of music, and, at the end of the trip, he visited Tokyo, Japan. But he was homesick, mostly for American food; he lost 35 pounds in four months. And although thankful for the experience, he doesn’t miss the air pollution, a growing concern for the Chinese.
Returning to the GCC campus in January to resume his studies, Miguel has reconnected with the International Club; most of his friends are part of the group. While in China, many of them had kept in touch, sending messages on We Chat. He is intent on again becoming an officer in the club. And he hopes to make a lot of new friends, especially those who speak Chinese, to keep up his language skills. “There’s nothing like being able to hear natives speak the language, and to practice speaking with them,” he said.
He has realized he has an extraordinary passion for helping those still learning English. He believes many American kids are reluctant to befriend international students because of limited experience with other languages and the amount of patience it takes to navigate multicultural communications.
But he knows what it’s like to be in the shoes of a newcomer, and asks, “What’s the best thing you can have when you’re new to a country?” The answer, he says, is simply, “a friend.”
He has taken this to heart, reaching out to others, such as Eduardo Spolidorio, who came to the United States from Brazil. They have developed a lifelong friendship, and even roomed together for awhile. Now 23, Miguel has traveled to no less than 29 countries, his horizons expanding with every trip he takes and every new person he meets. “I’ve enjoyed it way too much to not want to continue,” he said.
“I have never met an American student at GCC who was so interested in other countries, cultures, languages and people,” said Mr. Bus. “He is really remarkable.”
Miguel encourages anyone who wants to see the world. First, “Understand there’s life beyond the United States; go out and experience it,” he said. Second, traveling is not for the fearful. “These people live in their countries every day; you can go live it for a month,” he said. And finally, it helps to really want it, and to work for it. “Have an open mind, and be willing to learn different languages,” he said.