Recently I’ve been trying to come up with a way to summarize and organize my thoughts about my study abroad experience now that I’m home and beginning to adjust back to life in the States. It’s difficult to sum up three months of constant life-changing experiences and lessons that I found while wandering the byways of Spain. I can say that I have changed as a person. I have learned to see things as more interconnected and related than different, including people. I found power in myself that I didn’t know was there as I navigated truly stressful and unexpected situations with cancelled plans, getting lost in cities, travelling through the vastly different provinces, and learning to adapt when locals did things a certain way.
A coworker asked me a question about my experience that caused some introspection: what would you say to someone considering a study abroad? I had to think about it. My gut reaction was to yell “DO IT!!”, but of course I have heard the same rhetoric from every returned study abroad student. We all know that everyone finds meaning in it in one way or another. And certainly travel has its appeals. But what I said to her is something that rang true for me and I would tell anyone:
Study abroads aren’t for everyone. They push you in ways you thought you were prepared for. They challenge who you are at a fundamental level and demand to know who you are going to be when you are tossed into a situation where you can’t act like you always have. They show you truth where you’ve only heard hearsay. They light darkness within yourself and bring out some of your most hidden weaknesses. They highlight the biases you had no idea you had, attack your paradigm of reality, and generally answer with “you were wrong” as you run into situation after situation that throws cracks into the view you’ve built of the world. They’re exhausting, all consuming, terrifying, and I guarantee that if you let yourself experience it fully, you will not come out of it the same person you entered. So study abroads aren’t for everyone. They are one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever experienced in my life. And the most rewarding. So if you’re looking for a brief trip through the popular sites of country with a tour guide blaring in your ear information like what year each thing was built and what style of architecture it is, study abroads aren’t for you. If you’re merely looking for a check mark next to a bucket-list of countries you’ve stepped foot in, study abroads aren’t for you. If you aren’t ready to be in situations where you allow yourself to be ductile and influenced by the rhythm of a city, the stories of a native’s youth, or the historical aspects that combine to create society, study abroads aren’t for you. Of course there isn’t anything wrong with visiting a country for a vacation as a tourist or backpacker, but study abroads are so much more than just seeing “TripAdvisor’s Top 10 Things To Do in Spain”. I would highly recommend them for anybody willing to dive into something new at the risk of becoming a better student, traveler, and friend.
My study abroad experience was immersive, it was personal, and it simultaneously made me feel very naive and incredibly connected to humanity. The more I traveled and took the time to talk to natives and fellow study abroad students, the more I realized just how much we can teach each other. I came to recognize that a text book knowledge of things hardly captures the all-encompassing reality of life in a foreign country, or even a language. The breath and life of a country comes from its people, and they all have unique life experiences and knowledge they were ready to share with me. So if I learned anything I would say that I learned to speak up and then listen. Yes, I learned to speak and listen to Spanish. But beyond the vocabulary and sentence structures, I learned to understand the nuances of what these natives told me. Within the stories my host mother told me of her childhood pueblo, wove a tapestry of rural town life in Spain and the deep pride and affection they have in their upbringings. As my host brother described his love for REAL Madrid, I recognized the loyalty and community that Spaniards naturally form. And as I listened to my host dad describe his job and work schedule I came to understand the profound love they have for their families and providing happy lives for their beloved children. I made friends with the plaza’s gofre seller who told me that their gofre stand had been in business for four generations and she was preparing to hand it to her daughter. There was an elderly gentleman who often went on a paseo at the same time I did with his daughter’s dog. He told me of the wonders of Andalusia and what life was like there when he was younger. I became a regular at a corner bakery where they had freshly squeezed orange juice and the owner always had time to answer random cultural or language questions that I had. The primary president in my ward became a good friend as she invited me to play the piano for the children. One Sunday I had to leave church early and she graciously asked if she could drive me home even though I lived 15 minutes away and gas is not cheap. Along the way we talked of her children and the great sadness she felt when they left the house for their own lives.
Through these and many more experiences I began to understand Spain. But more importantly, I recognized the Spaniard-like qualities within myself and thereby grew to understand myself better as well. Am I a Spaniard? Probably not, nor will I ever be. But I like to think that I left my beloved stay in Spain a more compassionate, empathetic, and gregarious global citizen. And this I know for certain: Spain has left a permanent mark on my heart and I will return again to the sharp taste of chorizo, the strum of a flamenco guitarist, and the scrumptious smell of a baking dark chocolate orange bizcocho.
Hasta que nos encontramos otra vez, España.