To achieve I had to go against all odds: my financial status, judgements and opinions, and hardest of all my own fears. I confess I had fear of trying, fear of failing, fear of not having brought everything with me before getting onto that plane; I had a fear that not everything was going to be ok.
I worked at a life insurance company so I could save money, then looked for scholarships – some that I qualified for and others that I did not. I trained myself to be a morning person and to take advantage of the day, giving out flyers, explaining the dream of a student exchange program and how to get in touch with me and my best friend/sister Jayleen Rodríguez, so that if anyone wanted to help us they could.
Gloves, socks, scarves, coats: technically any sort of help was more than welcome. We petitioned numerous blocks, stretching hundreds of people’s hands, meeting with hotel and restaurant managers expressing ourselves and what we wanted to do, and we spent hours and hours on the phone making appointments with business owners.
There were months of pure hard work, many long sleepless nights, tears of both happiness and rejection, and a never-ending list of challenges that gave me eyes bags like a zombie. On the 11th of August, 2016 I got myself on that plane, which many times seemed so far away from me.
We began the journey. First stop: Spain. My father is Spanish, and I’ve always wanted to meet this other part of my family. Once arrived, I knocked on doors of which each and every one of them opened for me, exposing faces with noses and smiles similar to mine.
Behind each person and the time that I spent with them, it was like getting to know myself better, making connections, and coming to understand my lifeline. I visited places like Madrid, Pamplona, Zaragoza and Barcelona.
I ate such delicious foods, and gained a few pounds too. I went back in time with my father to visit the places where he grew up. We went to have coffee where my parents used to go on dates well before I was born, and we bought the famous Christmas Lottery (Lotería de Navidad)… which I certainly did not win. (To each member of my family that bought the same number as me, all pumped up because of my comment “this is the winning number”: my heartfelt apologies, wrapped up in laughter).
My second stop was Milán, Italy, the official destination of my first semester on the exchange program at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.
Jayleen and I were the first to debut this new arrangement that Sagrado Corazón offers. My academic background consisted of two semesters of Italian classes that made me feel almost trilingual, until ordering a cappuccino became an entire mission. If I was feeling something more elaborate – it’s better to not even go into detail about the struggle.
Living in the “Capital of Fashion” taught me to be very creative when it came to mixing pieces of clothing.
Before winter came through, Jay and I bought blouses called “hangueadoras”, and we got to use them in every possible way: with necklaces, skirts, pants, heels, blouses inside, blouses on top, etc. One day we realized that in almost every picture of when we went out dancing we were wearing the same blouses.
“It’s super comfortable”, that’s what we said in search of reason, trying to hide the fact that our budget did not sponsor many options for us.
When the situation reached precarious levels, we created a system called “Today I‘ll wear yours and you wear mine”, a complex equation of exchanging the hangeadoras. “Wow, we look incredibly different”. If you repeat it many times you’ll end up believing it.
Rent in Milán could be considered the most expensive aspect of the entire experience, since it fluctuates between 450-700 euros for the room.
Add the deposit to this, and the utilities sometimes are paid separately. To eat in beautiful restaurants and feel that your life is like a movie is something that each of us must experience, but not every day or else in a month you’ll be scared when you see the 40 euros of each pasta dish you ate in the tourist district Duomo.
Know how to cook, and prepare your lunch bag whenever you can. Yes, that “Iron Man” or “Powerpuff Girls” lunch bag that’s dusty from disuse, that you had when you were in elementary school, because for each plate of food that you make you’re opening a window into a whole new world. What do I mean by this? In Europe you can travel by bus, train or plane to other countries for less than 25 euros if you really know how to search. Ireland, Switzerland, Greece, Romania, different parts of Italy like Rome, Venice, Naples, the Alps, Florence, and Torino were “new worlds” that I conquered during the past months.
Then, with the beginning of December, it was time again to pack for the third stop in this ambitious and Machiavellian plan: my second semester abroad, this time at West Chester University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
This time, I would be without my friend’s company, and without much at all, after Milan took a hit on my already meager wallet. Now, once again with the pressure of looking for an apartment, the biweekly grocery shopping is no longer divided in half when the time comes to pay at the register. Now… Now what?
After four months in Philadelphia, the first four of 2017, I can concretely say that I’ve never been happier. It’s wonderful how daily everything aligns, more questions have answers, more people, like beads, are added to the bracelet of my life, and less fears stop me.
I’ve learned that I am and carry inside everything I need. I value and take care of my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. If I don’t know, I ask; if I don’t have something, I ask for it.
Likewise, I feel responsible to spread my light and to share what I have. In moments of crisis – and there’s been more than few – everything disappears except my desire, faith, and hope.
The secret to achieving dreams is called discipline, and it’s decorated with madness. The good thing about starting from the bottom is that you know where the bottom is, ladies and gentlemen! Consequently every step you take, regardless of your rhythm, will take you closer to your goal. It’s impressive where we can end up if we just launch ourselves!
As I write these little snippets of thought, I celebrate each door I knocked, without stopping to remember whether it opened or not. Likewise, I celebrate each flyer I gave that admitted the need for help, each donation of friends and strangers, especially those 50 cents given from that man wandering in El Viejo San Juan without hesitation. Every gesture has been important and crucial.
The situation is not easy in Puerto Rico or anywhere else, but the very society that so many people complain about has taught me that the capacity for unity does exist, and that together we’re stronger. Wherever you go you can create family. We are more than a structure monitored by governments.
We are air, earth, water, and fire. We are nature, art, and song. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who keeps sending their light and love. Keep doing it, please, because this adventure in Philadelphia still has got some fuel to burn!
Translated by José Francisco Martínez Battistini
Edited by Evan Perry-Goblin