My STEP Signature Project consisted of a six-week-long study abroad program to Valencia, Spain with eleven other students. While abroad we lived in home-stays, took two classes at the Universitat de València, and traveled around Spain and throughout Europe together. We began our journey in Madrid, spending two days there getting to know the city, as well as each other, before we left for Toledo. We then spent one day in Toledo, walking through the old quarter of the city and busing up the mountainside. After this we proceeded to our more permanent destination: Valencia. There were pre-planned activities for the group on weekends, some of which included trips to Barcelona and Gandía, visits to Oceanogràfic, La Albufera and Sagunto, as well as an additional trip to Amsterdam with myself and two others. After the program, I spent the next two weeks independently traveling along the coast of the Mediterranean, visiting Montpellier, France and the cities of Milan and Pisa, Italy.
Before participating in this trip to Europe I had never before left the United States, let alone been on a plane! My world-view was shaped by American society, culture, and media, even though I had spent many years studying other cultures and languages. I felt that I had a pretty well-educated understanding of what Europe would be like, but tried not to go into the program with any preconceived assumptions or expectations. I did know, however, that this experience was going to be completely unique from anything I had ever done before.
As I mentioned above, my general understanding of the world and travel had been based off of classroom studies or hearing stories from others that had gone abroad before me. While this did give me some perspective of what I was going into, actually being there and living the “European lifestyle” is what helped to transform my understanding and build my personal connections with the people and places that I visited. I would say that the most important aspect that I brought back with me after my trip was that of reflection upon how small the world really is. Before participating in this program I thought of other countries as these far-off places that would be so distinct from anything that I had ever known. After traveling around Europe by train, alone, meeting people along the way and learning about their lives and how they perceived the United States, this perspective completely changed as I finally began to understand how connected and similar we all really are. This was also accomplished and reinforced by being with my program group, experiencing the different parts of Spain and Northern Europe together. However, I can say that the real learning takes place when you are on your own, without anyone else to rely on, and are able to fully realize what you are capable of doing.
The classroom experience is great and all, but when I was walking through the streets in Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Italy, the history that they contained came to life. Being able to be in the presence of a Roman pillar, climb the tower of an ancient city wall, walk through ruins overlooking the Sea, and build relationships with people from all these areas truly showed me the impact that being abroad can have. When I think about the world and all that it has to offer after participating in the program, my personal interactions with people that do not speak my native language and that have lived lives that are similar yet so different from my own, the memories of my independent travels that were nerve-wracking, yet eye-opening, and the feeling of being so far away from my home, yet feeling that I now, in some respect, have another, are what I refer to in order to fully grasp the amount that I learned from being abroad. Confidence, self-reliance, patience, understanding, and respect are all traits that I can connect with on another level after having participated in my STEP Project that would not have been challenged or strengthened in the same way had I stayed domestic.
From my experience, I can say that travel gives a person a sense of a new beginning. I left everything that I had ever known behind and jumped right into a new environment with new people and new ways of living. While Europe surely is not the most diverse place when comparing it to the United States, the change was noticeable enough to make an impact. This change, though, did not happen at any specific point, rather is something that I now understand after having experienced it and having had time to reflect on it. I remember when we first arrived in Valencia and met our host families: we were on our bus waiting for them to pick us up and, as soon as they arrived, we got off the bus, grabbed our luggage, did short introductions with the people with whom we would be living for the next few weeks, got into their car, and left with them. Isn’t that just a weird thing to do? Go into someone’s home and make it your own without ever knowing them beforehand? Well, that’s what I thought, at least. The truth is, although, that it wasn’t all that strange when I was in the situation. This definitely put me outside of my comfort zone, but building a familial connection with these new people was one of the main aspects of the trip that helped me grow as a traveler. Listening to stories about their lives, learning how to cook traditional Spanish foods and enjoying them together, and going out to explore the city with them really formed my outlook of how much there was that I had never experienced.
This home-stay and sense of complete independence was very helpful when it came to our weekend excursions and, especially, my two-week post-program trip around southern Europe. Interacting and building relationships with people that had very different life experiences was a skill that I was able to develop while living in a home-stay and traveling in general, and aided greatly in my transformation. Each person that I talked to, every unique story that I heard, and every place that I visited was like opening a new chapter in a book of memories that I now look back on. I vividly remember my favorite place that we visited together while in Spain: Sagunto. This is a smaller city up the coast a little ways from Valencia, and it offered some of the most beautiful sights that I have ever seen. After climbing to the top of the mountain to the ancient Islamic ruins and looking out at the city below, the sea in the distance, and even more city and mountains behind me, I really understood how far I had come and how much I had learned.
A final aspect, and one that I have mentioned already but think is worth mentioning again, is that of independent travel. Had I not done this at the end of my program, I think that I would have returned to the United States with a similar changed attitude, but would have not acquired that same skills that I did as a result of doing it. Being alone, thousands of miles away from home, was definitely a scary thing to think about, but that is not something that one should dwell on in the moment. I was able to build and experience an enormous amount of self-reliance, confidence, and independence that made this feat seem a lot more low-key than, in retrospect, it actually was. Navigating train stations, asking random people on the side of the street for help (which is something to be careful about doing), and having back-up plans in case anything did not go as planned truly forced me to become a different person than I had ever had to be before. I feel that this type of experience is one that everyone should have at some point in order to really discover what they are made of and how much they can truly undertake. I can now look through my friends list on Facebook and see the people I met, remembering all the adventures we went on together and how much we learned from each other while on our trip.
Having this experience to look back on as I complete my undergraduate studies and begin to plan my graduate ones, I am able to realize how important travel is when pursuing an international academic and professional career, as I plan to do. I can now go into situations with a unique sense of confidence and independence as a result of going abroad, allowing me to have opportunities that I either would not be offered or that I would not feel well-prepared enough to have if I had not participated in this transformational experience. I now better understand how interconnected people are, no matter how far away they are from each other, and can use this to apply for other similar international excursions in the future. I think, though, that it is even more important for those whom are not pursuing a direct international career to experience this sort of transformation so as to not forget that it does indeed exist. To Whom It May Concern, these strategies and world views can only help you, and probably provide you with many more opportunities than you would have without going abroad.
It is quite convenient that I was able to take part in this trip to a place that is more similar to the United States than others for my first time out of the country, as I will be spending this autumn semester, 2016, in Senegal, West Africa, studying French, Community Development, and Wolof in both urban and rural environments. As this region of the world will pose new challenges to me, the adaptation strategies that I was able to develop in Europe will be essential in taking on the new people, cultures, and situations with which I will be faced in Senegal, allowing me to further build upon this transformational STEP experience in a way that will add more layers to my world-view and understanding of where I fit in.
¡Hasta la próxima! À la prochaine! Alla prossima!