Year abroad prepared MIHS grad for future

Juli Gittelman, a Mercer Island High School senior, will attend Johns Hopkins University this fall. She spent her junior year of high school studying in Spain. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Juli Gittelman, a Mercer Island High School senior, will attend Johns Hopkins University this fall. She spent her junior year of high school studying in Spain.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Perhaps it’s senioritis or a case of Island fever, but whatever it is, Mercer Island High School senior Juli Gittelman is ready to spread her wings and leave the nest.

“I’m ready for a change,” she said. “It’s been nice being here while it’s lasted, but I think I’m ready for a new challenge.”

Capping off her final year with a full load of AP classes and earning admission to Johns Hopkins University in the fall, it appears that Gittelman’s hard work is paving the way to a new life away from home. But after spending her junior year as an exchange student in Spain, this won’t be the first time that the 17-year-old has spent time away from her family. She credits the experience with giving her more confidence and independence in trying something new.

Growing up on the Island from the age of 5, Gittelman and her family have roots in the community which mirror the experiences of families that have relocated here in the last decade or two for jobs with Microsoft. The family places a heavy emphasis on education — Gittelman’s mother, Ellie, was a former PTA treasurer and is a schools foundation board member — and cultivating local and personal interests. Life in the Gittelman household, said Juli Gittelman, is a nurturing place but full of high expectations.

“It’s never been an option to fail or not do a good job,” she said.

So a year abroad learning a new language was a big change in pace.

Last year, Juli Gittelman traveled to Navalmoral de la Mata, a small market town in rural western Spain, as an exchange student. Life with a native host family was an eye-opening experience that fueled her desire to travel and learn fluency in Spanish.

“I had just finished my third year of Spanish in high school,” she said. “[I] discovered I didn’t really know the language at all.”

The senior, who dreams of someday becoming an astronaut, said her hardest subject was Spanish Literature and reading 17th century plays in an old dialect of Castellano Spanish — something she had never seen before. Before long, she adapted to the schoolwork, but wouldn’t say what grades she earned.

“Let’s just say I did very well,” she admitted.

Her MIHS AP calculus and macroeconomics teacher, Kim Schjelderup, said she could see that quiet confidence showing up in her classroom. While most of Juli Gittelman’s credits earned at a Spanish school were counted toward graduation, they did not count as prerequisites for the advanced college-credit courses.

“She had to fill in a lot of the math learning on her own [last summer],” Schjelderup said. “She is a totally awesome kid ... Well-rounded and balanced.”

The Islander developed a close bond with the family and her host sister, who attended a local school with her. Juli Gittelman cannot wait to return to see her host family in Spain on a month-long visit in mid-June. Her parents combined gifts from Christmas/Hanukkah and graduation to grant her wish. She plans to travel with her host family to new parts of Spain and resume the Spanish practice of taking a long nap — a siesta — in the afternoons. But the bookends of final exams and graduation still beckon.

“A siesta? I just don’t have time to do that right now,” she said.

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