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Immigrant Success Stories: Maria Fontanal

Monday | January 24, 2022 | by Wilma Lee

immigrant success stories maria fontanal

World Education Services (WES) believes in the power of storytelling and shared resources. In 2019, we reached out to immigrants across North America. We asked about their reasons for leaving home, their challenges along the way, and the advice they would like to share with other newcomers.

In this new blog series, we are now sharing their stories with you. Below is Maria’s.

Click here to hear from others who have contributed their voices to WES.


A Mid-Life Change

Back in 2008, Maria would never have envisioned herself leaving Barcelona. For 11 years, she had enjoyed a stable, secure career in corporate finance.

But Maria’s earliest and fondest memories included putting on dramatic performances for her parents. She had always loved acting, and even earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Eòlia Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. But Maria didn’t think it would be possible to pursue acting as a full-time career in Spain.

Instead, she achieved another Bachelor of Science in Economics from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona—and put her dreams on hold.

But in 2020, the 46-year-old finally decided to pursue her childhood dream. To succeed, she knew she would have to pursue opportunities in the United States.

Today, Maria is an acting teacher at the prestigious Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City.

First Trip to New York

Before Maria fully committed to her mid-life career change, she wanted to explore her options. In 2008, she took a trip to New York City.

For several years, her inner voice had nagged her to pursue her passion for acting. Over time, she learned of several Spanish actors who studied acting and became successful in New York City. In stage acting, “NYC is the place,” says Maria.

In NYC, Maria visited Herbert Berghof (HB) Studio and auditioned for a spot in their summer intensive acting program. She was accepted for 2010. As she first stepped off the plane that year, she was both scared and excited; an overwhelming sense of freedom filled her heart. Although she did not know what to expect at that time, she only knew that she wanted to work hard and learn as much as she could.

It was a huge leap of faith. But it also told her everything she needed to know about what she should do with the rest of her life. Upon returning to Spain in 2010, she quit her finance job and focused on returning to NYC. This time, it would be for good.

Becoming an Actress

For Maria, moving to the U.S. was not originally part of her “plans.” For her first trip to New York City, she researched information that would simply get her through the summer. She gathered most of the information through word-of-mouth and online resources. For example, she used StreetEasy to find a short-term apartment. For additional guidance, she relied on not-for-profit organizations such as the Institut Ramon Llull and the Catalan Institute of America.

She loved the convenience of New York City—anything felt within reach. She also admired that Americans didn’t judge others for wanting to change careers later in life. In fact, she found that changing the course of one’s life in their 30s or 40s was accepted, and often admired. This is why she found the big city the perfect place to pursue her dreams.

However, Maria told us that finding affordable housing and insurance were challenges that she faced. Building a credit score from scratch was also a brand-new concept to her, as the concept didn’t exist back home.

Maria received her first 0-1 artist visa in 2015. She worked a few odd jobs before landing a position as faculty at HB Studio. When she isn’t teaching, or appearing under the spotlight, Maria also works for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she plays the role of a standardized patient who receives bad news. This is a part of a training program for doctors and nurses.

Maria hopes to feel more settled once she obtains her green card. In the future, she wishes to get involved in working in cultural institutions. As a long-term goal, she also hopes to foster a stronger connection between Spanish and American theater by mentoring students from her home country who follow in her footsteps and come to work as actors in the United States.

What Would Help?

Maria says that she relied on support from community groups and professional associations based in NYC. For example, she was able to find a lawyer and learn about health insurance options through The Hispanic Federation. The Actor’s Fund also provided support for her in terms of housing, health care, and free seminars. All of these helped her social and professional integration.

However, Maria wishes that there had been a central, designated place that gathered and distributed information for actors coming from Europe to the U.S.

For example, she believes that there would be great value in a guidebook geared toward immigrants in the acting industry. This guidebook would compile immigration information, such as how to apply for a visa, how to find affordable housing, and how to build your credit score. It would also include professional tips, such as how to find an agent, where to find auditions, and how to connect with other immigrant actors.

Advice to Other Immigrants

Maria admits that moving to the Big Apple might be overwhelming for many immigrants. Her own path wasn’t always smooth. But she feels like she has learned a lot along the way. She also grew stronger and developed greater self-confidence.

To successfully integrate, she explains: “You need to be honest with yourself about why you came to NYC. When I first came, my expectations were clear. I wanted to study and I focused on that.”

She adds, “In NYC it is important to have a community. There are a lot of lonely people; it is important to connect.”

To overcome her own loneliness, Maria connected with others through the Catalan Institute and through HB Studio. It was also through her connections that she landed all of her future acting jobs. Therefore, it was ultimately networking and friendships that allowed her to achieve her dreams.

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Wilma Lee is a Credential Examiner at World Education Services.