Finding Home Abroad

Maite Esteve with Linke family

On August 19, 1991, Maite Esteve's plane touched down in Minneapolis where Don and Colleen Linke and their children, Adam '93 and Sam '94, anxiously awaited her arrival from Catalonia, Spain. The 15-year-old international student and her host family would never be the same.

Now a lawyer in Spain, Maite credits her successful career to her experience living with the Linkes and attending Blake in her junior year of high school. "When you travel and you live away you learn about other cultures, other ways of thinking. You have to open your mind and accept others," Maite says. "If everybody could live abroad for a year, I think the world would be better." For Maite, both the world and her concept of family expanded.

Hoping to learn English, Maite applied for a scholarship to study at a private school in the United States. When asked for input on where she might be placed, she gave only one request: someplace warm. "I thought this would help me be sent to L.A. or Miami or Hawaii," Maite says. "When I received the letter with my destination I had to find an atlas. When I saw where it was and the winter temperatures, I almost died!"

Cold and snow would prove a small price to pay for the lifelong bond forged between Maite and her host family. Upon her arrival, Esteve announced that she wanted to call Don and Colleen "Mom and Dad" and quickly jumped into household routines. "She was as ready for us as we were for her," says Colleen, who had hosted international students before and now wanted to host a girl who spoke Spanish, Colleen's college major. Host sister Sam says she and Maite hit it off immediately. "Having a female exchange student was so fun for me since I didn't have any sisters or cousins," Sam says. Both girls were new to Blake on that first day of school, which deepened the connection.

Maite says the Linkes were her life guards during the first rocky weeks of school. She spoke little English and found navigating her class schedule challenging. She recalls that in every room she walked into on her first day, she was told she was not on the list. "When I arrived home I cried a lot, feeling very frustrated. I thought I was not going to survive such an experience," she says. "When the family asked me to talk to them about it, Sam and Adam found out that I was following the wrong day's schedule! Now I laugh."

Schedule troubles aside, Maite says that Blake's teachers exceeded all her expectations. "They were kind, comprehensive and so sweet to me," she says. "I will never forget Mr. Bufford coming in one hour earlier every day to give me particular attention and to help me understand and improve my math." Mr. Teslow fueled Maite's lifelong passion for photography, and she keeps in touch with Mr. Seel on Facebook. "Teaching with such passion, caring for the students — it all made me feel incredibly lucky!"

Maite dreams that her three children will one day study at Blake. The children have known the Linkes all their lives and refer to them as grandparents, aunts and uncles. Maite's family travels to the U.S. every other year to stay with the Linkes for a couple of weeks, and the Linkes have traveled to Spain for visits as well. This summer, Maite's daughter, Gina, lived with Don and Colleen in their home in Atlanta. "We were just astonished at her courage and determination to travel unaccompanied from Barcelona to Atlanta at the age of 10," Colleen says. "Hosting a 10-year-old is very different from hosting a teenager, but we were just so impressed at how easily she fit in."

More than 25 years have passed since Maite and the Linkes first met. Technology and social media have made communication easier, but time and distance never compromised their deep connection. "Not every exchange student experience ends up as special as ours did," Sam says. "But, wow, we feel so fortunate and happy to have a 'sister' on the other side of the world." Colleen adds, "Our family is changed forever. We have a Catalan daughter."

For Maite, a sense of gratefulness has kept her tied to her American family. "Who does so much for nothing?" she asks. "They opened their house and hearts to me!"

Find more photos on Flickr.