Airman Escapes Adversity for Shot at New Life

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- One Airman underwent the toughest challenge of her life in 2007, transitioning from her native background to a land she never imagined.

After spending the first 15 years of her life in Bogota, Colombia, Airman 1st Class Andrea Spanjer, 4th Aerospace Medicine Squadron bioenvironmental engineer, left her family and friends to escape adverse living conditions and start down a new path in Federal Way, Wash., a small town south of Seattle.

"It was hard to leave when I had many friends and most of my family in Colombia," Spanjer said. "I was already halfway through my ninth-grade year and when I came to America I had to do it all over again."

Spanjer enrolled in a new school where she didn't know anyone, was unfamiliar with the surrounding area and couldn't speak the primary language.

"It was really hard adjusting in America, especially interacting," Spanjer said. "I didn't know that much English and tried communicating to people with hand gestures. My stepfather helped me in his spare time to learn the language."

For Spanjer, learning English was a challenge as it wasn't an essential tool in Colombia.

"I thought learning English was unnecessary," she said. "Nobody in my family spoke English, and everything around me was in Spanish, like the music we listened to and the shows we watched on television."

Although she struggled, Spanjer said she eventually learned to speak and understand a fair amount of English, through multiple helping agencies.

"In school there was a class offered called English as a second language and that is where I made most of my progress," Spanjer recalled. "My aunt got me a tutor who would come over to help me every weekend for about two hours. I also had friends who helped me when they could."

Once Spanjer reached 12th-grade, she took an Air Force Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps class, which she said propelled her interest into joining the Air Force.

Shortly after graduating high school, Spanjer enlisted in the Air Force. She embarked on her journey to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, for Basic Military Training (BMT).

"BMT wasn't so hard after the first week," Spanjer recalled. "At first I didn't talk to many people because I am shy and wasn't comfortable communicating fluently in English, but after a while people in my flight realized that and helped me when I needed it."

Upon her graduation from BMT, Spanjer received her citizenship during the Airman's coin ceremony. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services established naturalization, the process in which citizenship is granted to non-citizens after fulfilling certain requirement, at basic training in August 2009. The process includes a recording of identifiable traits, a 10-question exam, a naturalization interview, and the administration of the Oath of Allegiance.

"Getting my citizenship was an overwhelming feeling," said Spanjer. "It was a great accomplishment in my life and my family being there made it perfect." 

Following BMT, Spanjer went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for her technical training in the bioenvironmental career field. There she learned the aspects of her job and how to accomplish daily tasks. Afterwards, she reported to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base for her first duty assignment where she is currently serving as a bioenvironmental engineer.

"She's very unique, always happy and brings good morale to the flight," said Staff Sgt. Sherring Goodwin, 4th AMDS NCO in-charge of environmental surveillance. "She thinks outside the box and she's a great asset to the Air Force. You learn a lot from new people from different places, and she's taught us a lot. She's on top of her job and she makes sure she does it to the best of her ability."

Spanjer said she is proud of her heritage and appreciates Hispanic Heritage Month and all those who pay respect to it. During the month, she said she got together with fellow Colombian friends to eat and drink Hispanic foods, and share stories from their past.

Spanjer said she plans to continue her Air Force career, expand her education and look toward a bright future, while never forgetting where she came from.

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