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Mt. Pleasant native goes far by way of Spain

| Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When Kelsey Miller decided to spend the winter semester of her junior year in college studying abroad in Spain, the 21-year-old Mt. Pleasant native never dreamed of the impact the trip would make on her.

“The girl who used to get lost going into Pittsburgh every time and couldn't seem to remember to grab her purse when leaving anywhere was suddenly planning trips to Morocco and zig-zagging the alleyways of Prague,” Miller said.

The Syracuse University advertising major said she always wanted to spend a semester abroad.

“I knew that it wasn't just something I wanted to do, but it was something I needed to do. I wanted to break out of my comfort zone and not just see the world but really experience it,” Miller said. “You can travel anywhere, but you can't really experience a culture until you really immerse yourself in it and live your life there.”

Lisa Anthony, admissions counselor for Chile and Spain at Syracuse University Abroad, said when she first met Miller she knew she was the perfect candidate to participate in the university's Madrid program.

“Kelsey has an intellectually curious, easy-going and friendly demeanor to her that puts people at ease and inspires her to delve into new, foreign situations,” Anthony said.

Anthony said on one of her last nights with the group, she was going for a walk to see the city, roam the cobblestone streets and pass by the illuminated cathedrals.

Miller, along with a couple of her peers, joined her instead of staying in the hotel, video chatting with friends or family at home, or hanging out with the group like most of the other students did.

“From that moment, I knew Kelsey was going to take full advantage of this transformative experience abroad instead of letting her days in Europe slowly pass her by,” Anthony said. “I hope she continues to travel and comes back to campus in the fall as a program global ambassador promoting Madrid.”

During her four months living in Madrid, Miller visited 19 cities, nine countries and two continents.

Among her many experiences, she said she drank beer with Germans, ate pierogies in Poland, swam in the Hungarian baths, jumped into Valencia's Turia River in February, fulfilled a life-long dream of going to Africa, rode a camel and poured a Heineken so well at the factory that they offered her a job.

“I found a second home in a city that I never imagined that I would see. Out of everything that I did I can't possibly pick a favorite experience, but I can say that the one overarching theme over all of it — the favorite thing that I did in the abstract — was break out of my comfort zone, throw caution to the wind and just live to the fullest,” she said.

The young woman said when she arrived in Spain she had only a very basic understanding of the Spanish language. Socializing along with six hours of Spanish class each week helped her to get a firm grasp on the foreign language.

“At first it was a culture shock, I could hardly understand anything but now, at the end of the semester, I'm ecstatic to say that I can easily get along on a day-to-day basis and converse with locals,” she said.

She lived in Madrid with a host mother who Miller said didn't speak a word of English.

“Pilar is a (5-foot, 2-inch) little Spanish woman who has the heart of a saint and could cook any chef out of their job on Food Network. At the beginning of the semester we could hardly communicate, but by the end, my roommate and I had formed a strong relationship with Pilar, could communicate enough to really get to know each others' personalities and on our last day exchange tearful and heartfelt goodbyes,” Miller said. “I owe so much to that woman.”

Living with a local and socializing with other natives also helped Miller immerse herself in the culture, which she said was her main purpose for being there.

“I was there to experience Madrid, the Spanish culture and to travel. That was my way of learning last semester — classes were just a side note. And I can truly say that I learned more last semester than in all of my years of schooling,” she said.

Her parents, Lynn and Karen Miller of Mt. Pleasant, said they were not surprised by their daughter's desire to spend a semester abroad.

“Every college we looked at for her, that was one of the first things that she wanted to know about, (the) study-abroad program. She worked while at Syracuse and also (during) the summers and saved almost all of her money for this,” Karen Miller said. “She also was awarded three study-abroad scholarships that helped immensely with the cost.”

Miller's mother said she thinks this experience has made her daughter even more confident in what she can accomplish.

“She organized her life (and) traveled with new friends and on her own. She took every opportunity that was given to her, and had the time of her life,” Karen Miller said.

Linda Harkcom is a freelance writer.

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