Michaela’s Story: Guiding Global Health | Concordia Language Villages

Michaela's Story: Guiding Global Health

Special thanks to Sara Michaela Andrist, MPH, RD, LD, for providing us with her account of living the language.

Michaela with El Lago del Bosque dean Diana

Six days from now, I will be deploying to Sierra Leone to assist with the U.S. government’s efforts to respond to the Ebola outbreak.  Growing up, never would I have imagined that I would have the opportunity to contribute to such an important effort.  Gosh, how did I, as a girl from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota end up where I am today?

I grew up in Detroit Lakes in the 70’s and 80’s, when it was a small quaint resort town, with barely a population of 10,000 people:  my graduating class was under 200, and soccer wasn’t even considered a sport there yet!  There was not a lot of diversity in this little town, but my parents did their best to expose me and my sister to new things and experiences.  My introduction to other cultures and languages was through language camp.  That’s right, El Lago del Bosque (in Lake Park at the time) was my entre to:  food beyond goulash and language beyond English (after all, we didn’t have Dora the Explorer in those days!).  I admit that going to camp to study a language didn’t seem all that appealing to me at the time.  Using my summer vacation to do anything other than chase boys, go to the arcade, or lay out in the sun, didn’t hold my attention for very long. 

When I arrived at El Lago del Bosque my first year in 1982, I was immediately welcomed by several cheerful counselors who quickly converted my name from Sara to Michaela, exchanged my dollars to pesetas, and stamped and handed me a cool looking official document that was to be my “passport” for the week.  Before I knew it, I was singing national anthems of many Latin countries, eating foods I had never heard of before, and making lots of new friends.  I remember appreciating the enthusiasm of the village dean, Diana Tess, and being so excited when I got my photo taken with her.  The days went by fast…so fast that evidently I didn’t even have time to change my clothes.  When I arrived home my mom realized most of my clothes were still clean! 

It was hard to keep our interest peaked in Spanish with the limited opportunities, so my parents hosted an exchange student from Guatemala when I was in 5th grade and I was enrolled in Spanish in school once it was offered in 9th grade.  In college, I chose Spanish as my minor had the opportunity to study the Mayan culture in the Yucatan peninsula and also take intensive Spanish classes while living with a family in Guatemala.  I struggled with figuring out how I could focus my career path on health but also incorporate working with other cultures.  After a couple of years working as a dietitian, I applied for Peace Corps.  When I opened up my selection letter, I was surprised to see that I was selected to go to, none other than Guatemala!  I served as a health volunteer in the central part of the country. 

After Peace Corps I completed my Masters in Public Health with a focus on international health from Tulane University. For most of the past decade, I have worked in global health, traveling to Tanzania, Nigeria, Botswana, Namibia, Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Thailand, Vietnam…and yes…Guatemala!  Several times during my journeys I have thought back to my time at El Lago del Bosque, thinking, if I had never had that experience, I can honestly say that my life may have gone in a completely different direction.  When I visit the Concordia Language Village website, I am excited to see that even with the expansion of camps and new activities, the fundamental elements of the camp that I enjoyed have been maintained.  In addition, Diana, who was such an inspiration to me as a first year camper is still leading the way.  What a testament that is to this organization!  I feel fortunate that I crossed paths with this camp. I can only imagine the ripple effect it has had on so many people’s lives.