Rachel Sperry of Webster poses with her Spanish host parents, Jorge and Blanca Rodriguez. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

When Mike and Judy Sperry of Webster let their 16-year-old daughter board a plane bound for Spain, they didn’t know what to expect when she returned. Now, two months into her senior year of high school, Rachel Sperry and her parents couldn’t be more grateful for her adventure.

Sperry studied the second semester of her junior year in Galicia in northwest Spain. An international youth exchange organization, AFS Intercultural, sent a representative to Webster High School looking for families to host international students, but Sperry was more interested in becoming an international student herself.

Having studied high school Spanish and photos of the country, Sperry felt Spain was a clear choice. She was wowed by the breathtaking beauty of the region.

Life abroad

Loving certain parts of A Coruña, the city she lived in, Sperry said she did miss the contact with nature that comes with living “in the middle of nowhere” in Northwest Wisconsin.

“In a small flat, in close quarters, there wasn’t a lot of alone time,” she said.

Being away from home, she learned a new appreciation for family life, and her mom’s cooking. Not being able to speak the language was a human reality that opened Sperry to deeper spiritual realities.

“I had to let other people take care of me,” she said.

Taken aback by the empty churches in a historically Catholic country, Sperry told the Herald her host family felt church was boring.

“I was forced outside my comfort zone,” she acknowledged, “but my experience of faith was expanded.”
A last-minute invitation to join an AFS program trip during Holy Week turned out to be one of the most memorable weeks of her time in Spain.

Embarking on a five-day walking trip – the famous Camino de Santiago – with 55 other AFS students, Sperry was surprised how quickly the group of international students became a cohesive unit.

Walking 20 kilometers a day, and staying overnight at hostels, Sperry said, “It felt easy, ‘til I got up the next day and hurt so bad I wanted to quit. I honestly thought of Jesus on the Cross. This does not compare, yet I’m whining and wanting to quit.”

The Sperry family sees a definite change in “Rachel before Spain and Rachel after Spain.” Getting to know companions of other faiths and varying degrees of practicing them, she learned to have an open mind and respect other beliefs in a new way. At the same time, Sperry gained new gratitude for her own values and their Catholic foundation.

Throughout her time in Spain, Sperry learned that “I always have the unconditional love and support of my family.”

Through Fr. Mike Tupa and the parish of St. John’s in Webster, she also formed a deeper sense of the support – personal and financial – of her faith community. Sperry’s mother, Judy, described it as a “family outside the family.”

While in Spain, she felt in some way that the Church was her home away from home. Having gone to Easter Sunday Mass alone, Sperry said, “A lady sat next to me. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but she was welcoming and loving.”

Sperry’s mother feels her daughter’s time in Spain “activated a process in her. When you have to be in receptive mode, and are forced into a vulnerable situation, you become open to new experiences.”

“It was the maturation process on steroids,“ Judy told the Herald. “Rachel came back with so much growth. She is beginning to move into adulthood; out of a me-centered reality, towards an others-centered reality.

“Her eyes are more open to what’s happening around her and where her support systems are,” Judy added.

Many of these, in the Sperrys’ case, are faith-based.

“When you get a little bit away from that me-centeredness, then you can move closer to God-centeredness,” Judy said.

Mike admitted he wasn’t excited at first about the idea of his daughter studying abroad. But now he says, “This was the best preparation for adulthood; having her mind opened to different people and different parts of the world.”

He concluded, “Parents are not just supposed to protect their kids, but prepare them.”

Looking to college next year, Sperry doesn’t want to say no to things that might be growth experiences. She feels her time overseas has helped prepare her for college by “giving me the confidence to move away. I know I can make friends, because I did. And I learned to be kinder, less self-conscious and more complimentary and aware of others; in tune to their needs.”