In a small home nestled between rolling mountains and a volcano, a Costa Rican family welcomed Julia Knight.
This was her new host family, but she spoke little Spanish.
“Más lento! Slower, please,” Knight repeated.
Talking a-mile-a-minute, Knight’s host mother and sister prepared Knight a smoothie. The mother called up the stairs.
“Ale! Ale! The guest is here.”
“Ale” is Alejandro Reyes, a young man about the same age as Knight. He played video games for another half hour before coming downstairs to greet the family’s new guest.
This first impression of her handsome host-brother was not what Knight had expected.
“Oh, how rude,” thought Knight.
One at the kitchen table and the other on the stairs, Knight and Reyes said “hola” for the first time.
A language of romance
Knight, an Augustana senior, always knew she wanted to be a teacher. But the path she took to graduating as a Spanish teacher came unexpectedly.
As she grew confident in speaking Spanish, Knight realized she must teach students not only the language but also the value in getting to know Spanish-speaking people.
“I want others to realize that it’s important to learn another language so they can speak with so many more people in the world,” Knight said.
Advice no doubt taken from her own journey.
Her senior year of high school, Knight reluctantly decided to take a Spanish class trip over spring break. She traveled to Costa Rica, a Central American country between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean.
“It’s the trip that changed my life,” Knight said.
Going that far from Bloomington, Minnesota, with classmates she hardly knew took convincing. She soon learned that in a foreign country, strangers quickly become friends.
Knight and her new friends chattered on about Costa Rica’s rainforests and monkeys, and she forgot her hesitations about coming to Costa Rica. But a new worry filled its place.
They fretted on the bus that was taking them to their host families: “We don’t know Spanish. They don’t know English. Oh my gosh, how are we going to do this?”
Soon enough she realized time with her host family would alter her life.
“When I met her for the first time, we were waiting for someone quiet,” Reyes said.
Even knowing only basic Spanish, Knight was anything but quiet.
When they hiked in the mountains, Knight and Reyes started exploring paths, just the two of them.
Once, Reyes, his sister, her boyfriend and Knight traveled to the beach and spent sunrise to sunset on the soft sand. Monkeys ran by and the waves crashed quietly on the shoreline. Reyes and Knight were each dating other people at the time, but to an outsider, the four youngsters must’ve appeared to be on a double date.
Five days passed gabbing with the Reyes family and sharing in their lifestyle. Knight’s Spanish improved, as did her opinion of Reyes.
“We felt that chemistry — a connection,” Reyes said.
So, they talked more. Her final evening, the four teens stayed up all night laughing and playing games. Somewhere between the hands of cards and fake tattoos, Reyes’ head fell to Knight’s shoulder.
The sun peeked over the horizon, and Knight boarded an early flight home.
Reyes felt a sad twinge in his chest. The family would miss their new friend.
Knight cried from the airport the whole way home. She thought, how many more amazing relationships could she make if she spoke more Spanish?
Her parents, unaware of the budding relationship, gave her a return trip to visit the Reyes family three months later. Her arrival saw a first date and a first kiss with Alejandro.
Her senior year of college, they are still together.
Quick to laugh and confident enough to joke, Knight never misses an opportunity to make someone else joyful.
“Like a ray of sunshine, she’s just always happy,” her cousin Gretchen Johnson said.
She looks a bit like sunshine, too, with golden hair and a beaming smile.
Her visit to Costa Rica amplified her affection for Spanish, and she realized she wanted to teach the language. At Augustana, her education and Spanish majors allowed her to advance not only in Spanish-speaking, but also in her first love — teaching.
More than a teacher
In a big Chicago home with three dogs, two cats, three parakeets, a fish and a new turtle, Knight spends her days nannying and tutoring Johnson’s three children.
Conner, 16, Grayson, 8, and Gloria, 7, must stay home like many of America’s youth because of COVID-19. Using her teaching skills, Knight carefully schedules each day for schooling, fun and chores.
Stooping beside Gloria’s chair at the kitchen table, Knight patiently explains equations with a calculator or differentiates a prefix from a suffix.
Strolling to the living room couch, she joins Connor to help email his teachers, organize assignments or explain a concept.
7 a.m. Morning chores.
8 a.m. Start schoolwork.
Noon. Lunch downstairs with grandma.
Take a walk, read a book, watch a movie, drink Starbucks. Knight’s written, color-coded schedule lays out each day.
Knight’s knack for lists and tasks means priorities and assignments for the students are exceptionally organized. She answers the three children’s questions and checks their schoolwork.
“They’re getting a lot more education because there’s someone there to actually answer their questions,” Johnson said.
The kids’ grandmas read with the two younger children, have lunch and hold recess. Then, Knight can have a little personal time or work more closely with the high schooler.
Always time for fun
Walking trails and exploring also entered their routine.
“Any chance I get to walk the dogs or just spend time outside, I am just in my heaven,” Knight said.
School at home doesn’t need to mean kids miss out on beloved recess time. For that, Knight likes to take the three children outdoors.
“I like going on a walk so I can ride my bike or scooter,” the youngest, Gloria, said.
Johnson said Knight’s energetic lifestyle means they get extra exercise and Spanish practice all at once by sometimes doing a Spanish workout video.
This will be the fifth summer Knight has spent with the family. Each year Reyes joins them.
One night when he was visiting, a girl who the Johnson’s were fostering had begged him to let her put some make-up on him.
“Makeover!” squealed the child.
After a little convincing, Reyes set aside his pride for a night as a princess, clad with makeup, a dress and some sandals. The girl, Gloria, and Knight were delighted, laughing and snapping photos.
When Reyes visits in the summer, he spends time with his girlfriend and helps entertain the children. Together, they camp, go tubing at the lake cabin or visit museums.
After graduation, Knight plans to move to Costa Rica to teach.
While teaching abroad is an important credential for language teachers, living close to the Reyes family will be a big perk.
“When she is here, everyone in my family is smiling,” Reyes said. “She has a contagious smile and laugh.”
Deb Knight, her mother, said she realizes working abroad for a few years will benefit her daughter. But the distance will be difficult.
Even so, Knight’s parents have already booked an AirBnB in Manuel Antonio, a lush rainforest in Costa Rica, for the whole month of January to spend time with their daughter after she moves.
Her first Costa Rica trip opened Knight to the importance of knowing a foreign language — to connect with people of a different background. Since then, the Reyes and Knight families have traveled between the two countries several times to get to know each other better.
Time in Costa Rica was not Knight’s only practice speaking Spanish. Her family often traveled to Spanish-speaking places for snorkeling vacations when she was younger.
Her parents still live with their dogs in the same Minnesota home where she grew up.
An only child, Knight was an actress, and her home was her stage. She performed a show each Friday night for her family. Her confident singing voice meant she would spend high school on stage in show choir or in plays and continue in college, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events.
Others noticed her confident voice in different ways.
One day when she was much younger, Knight chose to assist in the special education room at her school.
Achoo! One child sneezed all over her.
Knight responded with a kind word and a tissue to clean up the mess.
“Oops, those things happen,” she said, according to her mom.
That night, Deb Knight heard about the incident from the teacher.
She said to her daughter, “You know, you have an incredible passion with students of all kinds, and you have this bleeding heart. Have you ever thought about being a teacher?”
From then on, Knight hoped to become an elementary teacher, maybe helping with school music activities. But after her trip to Costa Rica, she knew she was called to teach a different subject entirely.
Knight’s Spanish teaching strategy centers on hands-on activities, as inspired by her mentor, Mr. Takalo. She said he sparked her passion for Spanish in high school by using games and humor.
A classroom of her own
Knight will have her own students soon.
“I think building those relationships is the No. 1 thing I am looking forward to,” Knight said. “I want to be able to joke around with them and have fun with them.”
Knight completed her student teaching this spring, and her cooperating teacher, Brent Jung, often joked with his Roosevelt High School class.
He convinced them he suddenly needed to move to Mexico and never return, even taking down some decorations to seal the prank. Left in charge of the classroom, Knight kept up the act.
“I’m so sorry, guys, but now you get me!” Knight teased the kids.
Monday, Jung returned to class.
“You were lying the whole time,” his shocked students said to Knight.
Pranks aside, Knight takes her job seriously.
She said Spanish is becoming one of the most popular languages in the United States and is useful not only for making connections, but also for her students’ future careers.
“I am motivated to teach because I want to share my love for a language with other people,” Knight said.
Although she’s now fluent, learning Spanish held its own challenges. Knight said she struggled at first with fear of pronouncing words wrong or misspeaking.
She realized learning from her mistakes would be necessary. After that, she spoke confidently in class. When she got it wrong, she just shrugged, tossing her head to the side in a chuckle.
“Es OK,” she would say.
Teaching is difficult for Knight in the same way learning was. She fears forgetting the right word and being unable to answer every question a student might ask.
She continues to share the relational language by teaching the kids in Chicago basic vocabulary with 10 minutes of Spanish lessons each day.
Knight asks, “Qué color es tu camisa?” What color is your shirt?
Roja! Azul! The children would shout. Red! Blue!
Each day, the teacher and children grow more confident in the language that Knight loves in part due to her close connections in Costa Rica.