What I know now…
I realized upon leaving that one of my greatest insecurities going into my abroad
experience was being what in my mind was the “stereotypical American study abroad
student”: jetting off to a new European country every weekend, spending time
exclusively with other Americans, drinking a whole lot, never speaking to a Spaniard,
and frequenting Starbucks. I met a lot of these students in Salamanca, and I think they
had a really enjoyable semester. In many ways, they may have had an easier time than
me, and I thought of them often as I walked alone, always alone, to yet another one of
my classes where I was the only American and had to no one to turn to and receive a
When I arrived in Spain in September, I had incredibly high expectations for myself: No
reading in English, news or for pleasure, during the day (I read every night before bed
and this wasn’t something I was giving up); No Netflix in English; Only travel 2
weekends a month; No Starbucks. Those first few weeks I even would catch myself
when I started to think in English, and instead try to translate my thoughts into
Spanish. I was determined to make some Spanish friends, or even find a Spanish novio
as I jokingly said to my friends the whole summer leading up to Spain.
Now home and heading back to Georgetown for my next semester I realize that I was a
“stereotypical American study abroad student” and I wasn’t and that’s okay.
To start, I travelled nearly every weekend this semester, and it was pretty special.
Seeing the Book of Kells with my friend Sienna in Dublin, walking around the streets of
Berlin as the city was waking up, and climbing the Tower of Belem in Lisbon, I won’t
soon forget. But I am glad as well that I chose to travel a lot within Spain, and I would
recommend to anyone studying abroad to not forget to explore the country that they
are living in! Travelling to Bilboa, Galicia, Sevilla, and Barcelona, I was able to see the
differences in Spanish autonomias I had learned about, first hand. I’m also grateful for
the in-between moments, sitting in train stations and waiting to board planes, in which
I was able to get closer to the Georgetown friends I was travelling with. And on top of
my travels with my friends, I was able to spend 4 days with my family in England,
catching up with my aunt, uncle, and cousins, and falling in love with my adorable 8-
month-old second cousin. I got caught up in the feeling of only being in Europe for a
semester and wanting to see as much of it as I could. And I don’t regret this.
My resolve to not read in English also broke down, embarrassingly fast. I should have
known it wasn’t going to be possible to shut down a part of myself, even if I was in a
foreign country. On the bus ride home after a morning full of listening, reading, and
talking in Spanish, I felt exhausted and all I wanted to do was open my New York Times
app and see what was happening in the world, or more often catch up on reading the
Vows section. My resolve not to go to Starbucks also broke down when finals came
around and the lure of free, lightning fast wi-fi was too much to resist. I didn’t get a
peppermint mocha though, that would have been treasonous.
The most significant breakdown of my expectations though, was finding that it is very
difficult to form a connection with someone when you don’t speak the same language.
Many Spaniards commented that my Spanish was great (I only really began to believe them in December), but even so not being able to speak at a native level meant the
conversations I could have with others were determined by the vocabulary I knew.
Over time my conversations did become more meaningful, but those first few weeks I
got a bit despondent having conversation after conversation about the weather in
Salamanca, my class schedule, and the fact that my Tuesday schedule had me racing
from campus to campus and back again. It felt a bit like freshman year of college when
I had to get over the hurdle of “What’s your name? Where are you from? What’s your
major?” in order to start forming a connection with anyone. Except unlike freshman
year, I found it pretty difficult to get past a “slightly better than superficial” level of
connection with the Spanish students in my classes due to my language skills.
That being said, I was happy with the connections I was able to make. I did a
presentation in my philosophy class and ended up having coffee with Judith, one of my
group members. We had a great conversation about the level of youth unemployment
in Spain and my decision to study far from home. It was a fantastic feeling being able
to hold an hour-long conversation in Spanish and learn a bit about Judith’s life, and
was one of the highlights of my semester. I also joined the Salamanca ultimate frisbee
team. Despite never having played ultimate in my life, I had a great time. The team
was composed entirely of Spaniards, in school or just graduated, and I thoroughly the
time I spent with them in and out of practice.
Another highlight of the semester was spending time with the Erasmus students I met.
These are students who are also doing exchanges but are generally from Europe or
South America. If I were to offer one piece of advice to a student heading abroad it
would be: make friends with the Erasmus students! They are in the same situation,
trying to navigate living in a foreign country and learning a new language, and are
often incredibly open to being friends with you. I was lucky to end up in a history class
with some students from Germany and the Netherlands, Fabian, Luca, Magriet, and
Eva, and a psychology course with Laura, who is from the Netherlands and I now count
as a close friend and hope to visit in the near future. I loved the evenings I spent in my
new friends’ apartments, learning about their lives and telling them a bit about what
it’s like to live in America.
I spent the last night of my time in Salamanca watching Moana in Spanish with Laura
and my Italian friend Marta. It was the perfect ending to this semester that I really had
no idea what to expect from going in. I felt happy I took the risk of asking Laura to get
a sangria one night and now had ended up in this moment with her and Marta. I felt
proud of having successfully navigated 5 classes in Spanish. And I was glad I had
deleted GroupMe back in September and actually let myself be in Spain as opposed to
being whisked back to my life at Georgetown with each notification. This experience I
had been thinking about and squeezing Spanish classes into my schedule to prepare
for was coming to a close. I sat on Laura’s bed sitting between two new friends, very
ready to go home and quite happy about how it all turned out.