SANTIAGO, Chile -- The application closed in less than an hour. Several setbacks had held me back all semester, and now circumstances were hinged on less than 60 minutes. I pulled out my laptop and quickly filled out the application, letting out a sigh of deep relief when I clicked "submit" seven minutes before the application closed. All I could do then was wait.
The email came a week later, and I couldn't believe it -- I had been accepted to study abroad in Santiago, Chile that upcoming spring! The next two months were a whirlwind of finalizing documents, expediting passports and attending meetings to prepare for my five-month trip.
Rather than study through a Miami program, I decided to go through the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), an organization that offers lower prices for trips all over the world. I knew South America was for me because of my love for Spanish, the outdoors and adventure.
I also wanted an opportunity to start fresh, knowing that there would be no Miami-affiliation with the program. I had had it with the sticky bar floors, politics and cutthroat nature of Farmer. I needed the opportunity to push myself, meet new people with fresh perspectives and delve into questions about spirituality, family roles and finances -- questions that had been hitting me hard for the past few years.
I would live with a host family, attend university with Chileans, take only Spanish classes and immerse myself in the culture. I didn't know fully what to expect, but I was ready to dive in.
When I arrived, my host family welcomed me, speaking in Chilean Spanish. I was greeted by a 24-year old man with a flowing mane of hair, a couple in their mid-50s, a yippy border collie and a house surrounded by cacti and succulents (my host mom swears they give the house feng shui). My housemate from Reno, Nev. and I embraced our new family in traditional Chilean fashion, a handshake with the men and a side-kiss with our host mom.
We were immediately ushered inside by the smell of food. We had arrived during the biggest meal of the day, lunch. The table was set to perfection with plates full of fresh vegetables and wine. This was followed by pastel de choclo, a Chilean dish of sweet corn with olives and eggs at the bottom of clay bowl. When things couldn't get any better, we were served mote de huesillo, which translates as husked wheat with sun-dried peaches. The conversation was light-hearted and challenging, and before I realized it, two hours had passed. I knew I was going to be in good hands.
It's surreal to look back on the past weeks here. During my second weekend in Chile, I decided to go backpacking with some new friends. After seven hours of bus hopping and hiking to a park that is only an hour and half drive away, we arrived. Little did I know that half of the park was on fire and that, before the trip's end, I'd carry a stray dog up a mountain and I'd watch helplessly with my fellow hikers as a random cow wandered onto our campsite, eating all of our food.
Yet, through all of this, I found a place of solitude, stripped my clothes off and idly watched wildlife play in a nearby creek for hours. Joy and peace have been inevitable.
Two and half months later after arriving in Chile, here I am, staring at the Andes Mountains preparing for a two-day climbing expedition. It's cliche to say, but this experience has been cathartic. I've met people from all over the world, improved my Spanish, hitchhiked in the middle of nowhere and have a stronger understanding of what I truly value in life.
There's been the challenges and joys dealing with a culture that values family over individuality, but all of these have helped shape me into where I am now. I've emerged out of a deep hole of depression that threatened to swallow me whole last semester. I've re-experienced joy, re-disciplined my mind and body and have re-emerged as my idealistic, impulsive, free-going self.