Face of Defense: Colombian Woman Becomes Airman, U.S. Citizen
By Air Force Airman First Class John Nieves Camacho
4th Fighter Wing
SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C., Oct. 18, 2013 After spending the first 15 years of her life in Bogota, Colombia, Air Force Airman 1st Class Andrea Spanjer, 4th Aerospace Medicine Squadron bioenvironmental engineer, left her family and friends to start down a new path in Federal Way, Wash., a small town south of Seattle.
Air Force Airman 1st Class Andrea Spanjer came to America at age 15 from Bogota, Colombia. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class John Nieves Camacho
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"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."
English wasn’t an essential tool in Colombia, she added.
"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.
"In school there was a class offered called English as a second language and that is where I made most of my progress," she 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 the 12th grade, she took an Air Force Junior ROTC class, which she said sparked her interest in joining the Air Force.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Spanjer enlisted in the Air Force and embarked on her journey to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic military training.
“[It] wasn’t so hard after the first week,” she said. “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 basic training, Spanjer received her U.S. citizenship in August 2009. The streamlined process included a recording of identifiable traits, a 10-question exam, a naturalization interview and administration of the Oath of Allegiance.
“Getting my citizenship was an overwhelming feeling,” she said. “It was a great accomplishment in my life, and my family being there made it perfect.”
Spanjer went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for her technical training in the bioenvironmental career field before reporting here for her first duty assignment.
“She’s very unique, always happy and brings good morale to the flight,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Sherring Goodwin, noncommissioned officer in charge of environmental surveillance for the 4th Aerospace Medicine Squadron. “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.”
As the annual National Hispanic Heritage Month observance neared its Oct. 15 conclusion, Spanjer said she is proud of her heritage and appreciates the observance and all who pay respect to it. During the month, she said, she got together with fellow Colombian friends to enjoy cultural food and activities and to 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.