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Study abroad plays special part in mother, daughter college experiences

| Judy Berthiaume

Turns out there might just be something to that old proverb, "Like mother, like daughter.”

At least if you are Amy Dorn-Fernandez and Miranda Fernandez and you are thinking about your futures.

Both came to UW-Eau Claire — though decades apart — because of the university’s reputation for offering exceptional study abroad programs.

"I traveled on a six-week People to People High School Student Ambassadors' trip my junior year in high school, and of all the countries we visited, I knew I wanted to go back to Spain," Amy says of discovering a passion for exploring the world. "A friend on the trip was from Eau Claire and said UWEC offered study abroad programs, if I wanted to do that in college.

"I latched onto that idea. UWEC was the only college I applied to. I did not even tour the campus, had never been to Eau Claire before, and had no idea what I would major in. I had no other plans except to study abroad."

To say it worked out well for her would be a bit of an understatement.

Knowing she wanted to study abroad in Spain, Amy registered for Spanish classes every semester, and eventually earned degrees in both Spanish and journalism.

As planned, she spent a year studying abroad in Oviedo, Spain, improving her Spanish skills and immersing herself in a new culture.

Twenty-plus years later, Miranda, like her mother years earlier, also was drawn to UW-Eau Claire because of its strong international programs, and specifically its study abroad programs in Spain.

She, too, is majoring in Spanish, with English as her second major.

"My mom’s stories about study abroad more than anything drew me here,” says Miranda, now a freshman at UW-Eau Claire. “UWEC has a lot of opportunities for study abroad and I know that is definitely something I want to do.

“I plan on going to Spain for sure. I am not certain if I will study abroad more than the once in Spain, but I am interested in studying in other places as well.”

Why Miranda’s interest in Spain?

Turns out that her mom did more than improve her language skills during her year studying abroad.

Amy also fell in love with a young Spaniard, Eloy Fernandez, who eventually became her husband.

"One thing my mom clearly told me before leaving home was, 'Do NOT find a boyfriend over there,'" Amy says of her time as a Blugold. "It sounded funny to me, and I assured her that I had zero intentions, and was solely focused on studying. I told her she had nothing to worry about, and I meant it. I really had not thought too much about what I would do, who I would meet, what it would be like, but I was sure it would be great."

In the end, Amy was more surprised than anyone to find herself part of an international love story.

"As the school year ended, I had no idea what the future would hold," Amy says of leaving Spain and her boyfriend behind to return to UW-Eau Claire. "I’d had a great year, made some great friends, and met a guy I loved. I said lots of goodbyes, flew home, and had no idea how this was going to work. I was really sad to leave Spain, but also excited to get back home and see my family again after a year."

At the time, email was still fairly new so she and Eloy, who was studying law in Spain at the time, had to go to computer labs on their campuses to send or receive messages.

"Sometimes we would call each other, but international calls were so expensive," Amy says. "We definitely wrote lots of letters, and waited for the mail."

Given the distance, Eloy says he was unsure where the relationship might go.

"I knew she was special, the one, but with the distance, the language, etc., I didn't really think about the future much," Eloy says. "We just stayed in the moment."

Six months after coming home, Amy flew back to Spain for Christmas.

A few months later, in May 1995, she graduated from UW-Eau Claire and Eloy came to visit.

"It was his first trip ever away from Spain," Amy says. "He met my family and we toured some places he’d only seen in movies. Then he went back, and I started my first full-time job as an assistant Spanish editor in St. Paul."

By the time he returned the next summer, Eloy had earned his law degree and was struggling to find a job in Spain, which had a high unemployment rate at the time.

"I knew that if he came on a tourist visa there were options to extend it, or even get married, but we hadn't made any specific plans," Amy says. "That night, in July 1996, when I picked him up at the airport, he proposed to me in the car."

Since she had a job and he did not, the couple decided to settle in the United States after they were married.

They raised Miranda and her twin brother, Nico, in Maplewood, Minnesota.

While Minnesota is home, Miranda's family travels to Spain every couple of years to visit family and friends.

"We get a chance to travel to different regions of Spain every time we go, which is great, because it allows us to see so many different aspects of Spanish culture," Miranda says. "I definitely want to go to Spain and experience the country more on my own."

When Miranda and Nico started considering colleges, Amy encouraged them to tour her alma mater.

"I was curious to see campus again myself," Amy says of UW-Eau Claire. "I’m glad that Miranda chose UWEC. When we moved her in, I knew that she was in good hands. I’m excited for her to make her own memories and friendships and explore opportunities to create her own next chapter."

Amy is thrilled that Miranda also plans to study abroad during her years as a Blugold.

"I want her to have her own experiences, and can’t wait to see where she chooses to go, maybe even multiple trips," Amy says. "It’s also nice to know that no matter where she goes, we will be able to connect with her by cell phone, FaceTime or other social media options that weren’t around when I studied abroad.

"I remember plugging peseta coins into a phone booth a few times to check in with my parents and wrote some letters. For the most part, they didn’t have contact with me for a whole year. I don’t know how my parents survived, because I could not do that with Miranda."

Her advice to her daughter or anyone else planning to study abroad?

"Be open to new ideas, and meeting new people," Amy says. “Have a plan, but be flexible. Things don’t always go according to plan, but sometimes the result is even better than you had in mind.”

Eloy agrees.

"Have fun, see things through other's eyes, learn about the culture and walk in their shoes," Eloy says. "Get to know others and learn your place in the world. As Americans, we have a hard time understanding other cultures if we don't experience them directly."

Miranda says she plans to take her parents' advice, pushing herself to embrace new experiences and cultures.

"I think any immersion experience is great," Miranda says. "Getting outside of your comfort zone, as much as you dislike it in the moment, is an opportunity for growth."

Photo caption: Amy Dorn-Fernandez met her husband, Eloy, while studying abroad in Spain when she was a student at UW-Eau Claire. Her daughter, Miranda, is now a Blugold and looking forward to her own study abroad experiences in Spain and elsewhere. Miranda’s twin brother, Nico, also is pictured.