In August, Newman graduate Marie O’Neal will head to Madrid to begin an overseas opportunity as an English teaching assistant with Meddeas.
Meddeas is an organization that supports bilingual teaching in Spanish schools and offers language assistant opportunities. According to its website, the Meddeas Spanish immersion program is a “challenging experience that will without a doubt get you out of your comfort zone.”
O’Neal, a Newman Honors Program participant, is determined to do just that.
Equipped with her minor in Spanish, O’Neal recently graduated magna cum laude with degrees in international studies and mathematics. Although O’Neal has never been to Spain, she did complete a Spanish immersion program closer to the states: the Newman Guatemala Study and Serve Program.
“The program with Professor Sonja Bontrager allowed me to study, live with host families and develop the skills necessary to live in a different country,” she said.
O’Neal also participated in two service trips to Gallup, New Mexico, where she learned more about the Navajo culture and witnessed different ways of living. O’Neal attributes these experiences, combined with Newman Studies Program (NSP) classes like “Border Crossings” and “Home and Immigration,” for strengthening her ability to empathize, think globally and use resources to adapt to other environments.
“In Guatemala, I was teaching English to young girls, but I also taught them things like how to shoot a basketball and how to chant ‘Somos mujeres fuertes,’ meaning ‘We are strong women,’” O’Neal said.
Inspired by her mother’s teaching profession and her own experiences as an immigration intern with the International Rescue Committee in Wichita, O’Neal says she has discovered a niche for working with women and young girls.
“I love seeing girls succeed and watching their confidence grow,” she said. “I think the Lord put that dream to serve them into my heart.”
Learning a different country’s education system may have its challenges, however O’Neal is excited to both learn from and connect with her 8- to 12-year-old students. She also can’t wait to experience “all the amazing parts of Spain,” including the people, the food and the destinations, she said.
“While I’m sure I will make some mistakes or social faux pas, I think after adjusting and evaluating cultural differences I’ll grow to love it,” O’Neal said. “I know it will take a lot of grace, and I am excited to see the ways I grow as a person while abroad and when I come back.”
Kelly McFall, Ph.D., professor of history and chair of the division of humanities, says there are lots of ways for graduates to take advantage of immersion experiences in the world.
“Sonja (Bontrager) does a wonderful job with Guatemala, and I hope I do a pretty good job with Europe (by Rail),” McFall said. “There’s a variety of ways students can go overseas on somebody else’s money after they’re finished at Newman that will teach them about themselves, but also allow them to give back to some other place.”
The nine-month Meddeas program in Spain is just one of those unique opportunities. O’Neal views her ability to participate in the Meddeas program as a culmination of the time and energy she has received from many individuals, both at Newman and in her own life.
“As a freshman, I would never have imagined participating in a program like this, and it’s because of the faculty and staff who have encouraged me to take these chances and opportunities,” O’Neal said. “I am grateful for the support of so many people who have worked with me behind the scenes and supported me during my time at Newman.”
McFall describes O’Neal as being “enormously gifted with kids.”
“Not that this is a surprise to anybody who knows her,” he said. “The kids Marie will work with will get to meet somebody different and get connections and exposure that they never would have gotten without her.”
McFall added, “I would love for more students to take advantage of opportunities like this.”