Nicole Willson was just a year old when her paternal grandfather and his second wife — a woman from Sonora, Mexico — moved from Arizona to Alaska to spend time with the family’s first grandchild.
“For the first 10 years of my life they lived right next to us, and she was often our family babysitter,” Nicole said of her step-grandmother. “She taught us Spanish colors and Spanish numbers and she would sit there on her phone talking to her relatives for hours in Spanish. I just thought it was fascinating. It was funny, because she was always a very passionate woman — my grandfather frustrated her sometimes so she would go off on him in Spanish.”
Those years of soaking in the Spanish language cultivated an interest that bloomed into a passion when Nicole enrolled in an introductory Spanish class at UAA. While Nicole chose English and economics majors, her decision to minor in Spanish led her (with the urging and encouragement of her “academic fairy godmother,” Dr. Patricia Fagan) to successfully apply for a Fulbright. She leaves in September for an orientation in Madrid, and then will travel to the area in Spain where she will serve as an English teaching assistant until June 2018.
“I got placed in the region of Asturias, which is northern,” she said. “It’s a bit more reminiscent of Switzerland, not as hot as in the south.”
‘I gained a lot of confidence’
Nicole grew up in Alaska, the homeschooled daughter of a state trooper who was stationed in Mat-Su, Sitka, and then Fairbanks. Her parents adopted two sons in Fairbanks before bringing their family back to Wasilla in 2011.
Nicole was a UA Scholar when she entered UAA and she decided to study English.
“I’ve always wanted to study that,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a teacher, though, so I kept exploring.”
Nicole decided on a Spanish minor and then tacked on an economics major “to diversify things, looking at English from more of a business standpoint rather than just a teacher-traditional standpoint.”
So Spanish, Nicole said, “became my happy, fun place. I routinely avoided other homework to do Spanish homework. In the process, I learned not just Spanish, but a lot about myself.”
Fagan mentored Nicole through most of her undergraduate career.
“She encouraged me,” she said. “[Fagan] kept saying the big names — Fulbright, Truman, Rhodes. I got a little scared. I thought, wait, maybe I should just test-drive an experience abroad first.”
Nicole had traveled to Europe before, at age 10, when her grandparents took her and her sister on an RV trip through Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria: “I remember castles and playgrounds and Venice,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
In 2015, Nicole flew to Barcelona to take part in a six-week program featuring classes in international economics and Spanish.
“[Fagan] encouraged me to look at some travel afterwards and I figured, I’m already over there, might as well,” Nicole said. “I expected to meet up with some people in the program to go backpacking, but a lot of them wanted to experience Europe by themselves without parents.”
Nicole wanted to backpack and practice the language and go to museums and castles, however.
“So I went on my own,” she said. “It was terrifying, but it became one of the best decisions I ever made. I gained a lot of confidence through that.”
She took a bus around northern Spain and then headed toward Spain’s west coast. Her trip took her to many regions of the country, though she didn’t get to visit Asturias.
“I drove through on a bus,” she said.
It was easy to travel in Spain, Nicole said.
“I felt so safe after dark in Spanish cities,” she said. “You can wander around after dark; everyone does it, it’s just the culture. People have dinner after 10 p.m. and they take all their kids and socialize really late. It’s just a big grand ol’ family kind of time.”
Her experience in Spain emboldened Nicole to capture other opportunities. While working as a research intern, she accepted leadership roles on campus with La Tertulia Spanish Club, UAA Club Council and UAA Concert Board; pursued studies in Iberian literature and published research on the authorial purpose behind Libro de buen amor; and finally put aside her apprehensions about teaching to take a job as a Spanish language tutor. “I fell in love with tutoring,” she said, “with the light-bulb moment in someone’s eye.”
Her full schedule of activities necessitated a change.
“Living out in Wasilla, you can’t be on campus all the time,” she said. “It was a blessing to be able to stay with my grandparents (in Anchorage) and be on campus.”
‘A dream come true’
The experiences she had in and after her 2015 trip to Spain prepared her for a voyage she took last year: a mission trip to Peru.
“We brought a lot of medical supplies, dental supplies. We brushed kids’ teeth, shared testimony, sang and played with kids,” she said. “We partnered with a local ministry down there through our church and just went out along the Amazon River to each village every day, carting along supplies. It was fantastic.”
Then, she and her brother visited Israel during spring break this year — a trip that was exceptionally meaningful because Nicole’s paternal grandmother is an Ashkenazi Jew born to refugee parents who fled Germany before World War II before meeting and then settling in San Francisco.
“A group of 25 of us went from one spot to another in a bus, all day long, every day,” she said. “We started in Tel Aviv, went to Jerusalem, went to the Sea of Galilee, we stayed in Tiberius on the edge of the sea. We went to the Dead Sea and the Dead Sea’s amazing. You actually do float in it. The water feels almost oily because of all the minerals in it. We went all over in Israel. It was a dream come true, based on both my personal faith and my family’s faith.”
Connecting Spanish youth and American culture
After graduation, Nicole did an independent study with Fagan to put together lesson plans in preparation for her Fulbright application.
“I was working on some English lesson plans and some community-based projects, either for work in Spain or in my own future career here in Alaska,” she said.
Among her plans for Spain: a literacy discovery club.
“My target audience will be young adults in the community who already know a little bit of English, to create an opportunity to explore classic American and English texts together,” she said. “Whether that meant a snippet of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe or iconic scenes from, like, The Wizard of Oz, the goal is to analyze them in a fun, relaxed way that encourages diversity and mutual culture and language learning.”
Another idea she wants to explore is a global exploration workshop, to help provide volunteer and university resource information for students and young adults who have been grappling with a high youth unemployment situation in Spain.
“I’m not Spanish and I can’t speak to their exact problems, but, I envision this workshop as a microcosm of potential global opportunities. If Spanish youth were to explore outside opportunities at any point, they’d be able to build an English résumé,” Nicole said. “It’s a workshop to make students and young adults in Spain aware of what global opportunities are available to them and to strengthen their English skill set, preparing and equipping them with exact vocabulary for the materials they would need to present when applying for educational, volunteer or career opportunities outside of Spain. Because English has become the lingua franca.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage.