Maya Angela Smith ES’99 has officially stepped foot on every continent except Antarctica and has visited or lived in 70 countries. From SYA Spain in 1999 to her current associate professorship in French at the University of Washington, Smith has pursued her love of languages around the globe.
Drawn by the human connection that language study requires, Smith sees the mastery of multiple languages as a unique way of engaging with the world. “I can communicate with so many more people than I could with just English,” she said. “Even those English-speakers in the world appreciate when someone can approach them in their native language. It’s a sign of respect and hospitality. Words contain specific connotations and feelings that are best expressed in certain languages.”
It all started in eighth grade during an opportune two-week trip to Argentina, which Smith says opened her eyes to a new world of possibilities.
“I was always interested in seeing the world and connecting with new people,” she said, “and while I wasn’t able to learn much Spanish in that short period of time, I was forever changed because I caught a glimpse of the magic you accumulate when you embed yourself in other people’s cultures, histories, and ways of seeing the world. When SYA Spain became an option for me, my desire to learn from and about others outweighed my fear of the language.”
Smith says that her biggest challenge in language classes from the beginning was memorization, making her first four months at SYA Spain miserable. “I didn’t understand anything my host family was saying even though I knew they were very nice,” she said. “I had never felt loneliness like this. Being trapped in your own head with nothing but your English thoughts while the people around you could not make sense of your thoughts was a daunting experience.”
Her defining moment came one day around Christmas as she was fumbling through another cryptic conversation with her host family. “All of a sudden, something clicked,” said Smith. “They said something to me, and I replied automatically. I then took a step back, sort of like an out-of-body experience, and I watched myself continuing the conversation.”