Nicole Newman graduated with a BA in Spanish and will enter UMSL’s graduate counseling program this fall with the intention of becoming a bilingual therapist. During her time as an undergraduate, Newman served as a Spanish tutor and supplemental instructor and also as the Student Government Association representative for Lingua, a campus language and culture club. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As long as Nicole Newman can remember, she’s been the person her friends and family turn to for advice. Her passion for the Spanish language has persisted most of her life, as well.

But Newman never thought about combining the two until she came to the University of Missouri–St. Louis. After graduating last weekend with a BA in Spanish, she is one step closer to that goal. She’ll continue working toward it next fall in UMSL’s graduate counseling program in the College of Education with the intention of becoming a bilingual therapist in the future.

It’s a pursuit that naturally combines Newman’s skills, but it took much thought, a few setbacks and a little uncertainty to realize her calling.

Throughout her childhood, Newman regularly visited her great grandparents in San Diego, and she became fascinated with the Spanish she heard spoken in the border city.

“I was always kind of around it, and I knew it was something that I wanted to speak one day,” she said. “Pretty much as soon as they started offering classes in middle school, I started taking it. I’ve been taking classes for 10 years now which is crazy to think about how long it’s been since those first classes where the aspiration to be bilingual seemed so far away.”

She eagerly signed up for her high school’s Spanish exchange program as a sophomore, even though she wouldn’t be able to participate until she graduated. Despite the wait, a trip to Spain was a dream come true.

However, the start of Newman’s journey was not very auspicious.

The group of exchange students arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport only to miss their connecting flight to Spain because of a storm. It was the first in a series of setbacks that made Newman question if she would actually make it to her destination.

Her luggage had already been loaded and sent overseas, leaving her without a change of clothes. If that weren’t challenging enough, she didn’t have a debit or credit card at the time, and she’d already converted most of the cash she had been carrying to Euros.

Ultimately, she and her fellow travelers lived in the airport for three days before catching another flight.

At first, arriving in southern Spain was somewhat overwhelming – the local accent was different than what Newman had been exposed to in her classes, and it was her first time outside of the United States.

But it wasn’t long before the Spanish people won her over.

“It hit me like, ‘Oh my gosh, I made it after this huge setback that almost completely cancelled the trip, which made it even more special,’’’ Newman said. “Something that hit me right off the bat was the difference in culture, the difference in greeting. Americans can be really shy and not super open to engaging with strangers, and I was already so nervous about my speaking skills in Spanish that speaking to people doubly terrified me. But the willingness of strangers there to help me out and engage with me and be super friendly, that was the biggest shock to me and something that made me feel immediately welcome.”

Newman spent the next two weeks with a host family in Cádiz, soaking in the sights and sounds of the ancient coastal city.

“I fell in love with the culture there, and I still talk to my host family, especially my host sister every single day over WhatsApp,” she said. “I loved the country, loved the culture and knew I wanted to go back one day.”

The experience had been transformative, but after returning home and setting her sights on college, Newman wasn’t sure that she wanted to major in Spanish. It was the only subject in school that consistently held her interest, but she didn’t want to teach. She was also on the fence about pursuing a career in international business.

For those reasons, Newman decided to first enroll at St. Louis Community College – Meramec and earn an associate degree. Still, she couldn’t shake the notion that Spanish was the right path for her. She chose to attend UMSL on the strength of its Department of Language and Cultural Studies.

“After I got my transfer degree, I was like, ‘I need to choose something, and this is the only thing that I’ve been interested in,’” Newman said. “I couldn’t have been happier that it’s what I chose.”

UMSL’s Spanish program provided an engaging environment, and Newman made friends quickly. Her language skills also attracted the attention of faculty and staff members, who asked if she would be interested in serving as a Spanish tutor and supplemental instructor. Newman gladly accepted the invitation.

As a tutor, she worked individually with lower-level Spanish students, and as a supplemental instructor, she conducted group reviews for Spanish II classes. In both roles, she enjoyed helping people who were in the same spot she once was.

“When people bring me stuff that I haven’t looked over in five years and they’re like, ‘How do I do this?’ I’m like, ‘How do you do that?’” Newman said with a laugh. “Then I’ll go look it up, and we kind of learn together that way.”

Newman also served as the Student Government Association representative for Lingua, a campus language and culture club, and was a member of Alpha Mu Gamma, the national collegiate foreign language honor society.

UMSL afforded her the opportunity to return to Spain, as well. Newman was part of the fall 2019 class of Bond International Scholars and received $5,000 toward studying at the Universitat Abat Oliba CEU in Barcelona.

The study abroad program was supposed to last six months during the spring 2020 semester, but unfortunately, it coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and was cut short by several months.

Looking back, the unforeseen obstacle hasn’t damped Newman’s memories of the city. She immersed herself in the way of life there, walking for groceries while taking in centuries-old architecture, conversing with neighbors and connecting with the international students at Abat Oliba.

“I was so in the present moment every second that I was there,” she said. “Of course, there were things I didn’t get to see, but I really felt like a true Spaniard because I was living as a student there more than someone on vacation.”

Though in the immediate aftermath of returning to the U.S., Newman was unsure about her future. The experience, particularly processing her feelings about the pandemic, helped her realize that she wanted to pursue counseling.

“My mental health during that time had taken a little bit of a toll just because I was looking forward to study abroad for so long,” she said. “Getting back home into quarantine, staying in my room for two weeks straight, I was like, ‘Wow, this is different,’ and maintaining the relationships in my social circle became crucial to my happiness. We came to develop a great support system of checking in on each other’s mental health with everything that was going on. Because of how much these experiences fulfilled me, I began thinking about what it would be like if this could be something I could do as a job in the future.

“That’s when I started playing around with the idea of becoming a mental health counselor. I have been the person that a lot of people in my life turn to for advice, but I just never equated that, that could be my job one day because I was so hooked on Spanish.”

Advice from a friend at UMSL majoring in psychology helped tip the scale. Newman’s friend suggested that she combine the language skills she’d developed with a counseling degree, noting many Spanish-speaking people seeking mental health services often have limited options.

With that encouragement, Newman applied and was accepted into the MEd counseling program. She also credits her continued success at UMSL to the Language and Cultural Studies faculty, particularly Assistant Teaching Professor Amy D’Agrosa, who helped her develop confidence and gain a sense of herself in the Spanish program.

Spanish will always be an integral part of Newman’s life, but she’s excited to start learning a new discipline.

“I’m going to be a counselor because it’s what I look forward to doing every day once I leave college,” she said. “I think it’s going to feel like all the uncertainty leading up to that was worth it.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe