I have dedicated years to learning about the history and culture of Spanish speaking countries, and I have spent many hours trying to fully grasp the Spanish language. Since I first began working with the language in middle school, I have wanted to practice my skills by traveling to a Spanish-speaking nation. This was only a dream, however, until I received my STEP funding.
For my STEP program I studied abroad on the Global May Madrid trip this past summer. During this time I lived in a dorm in Madrid and took a course on the history and culture of the city. Although the class was taught in English, I got to exercise my language skills daily while exploring the city and meeting many new people. The credits for the course I took also count towards a GE credit for my major, so I was able to take another small step towards graduation while having the experience of a lifetime.
Before traveling to Madrid I had no idea how rich and complex their country’s culture was. I learned so much about the immigration to Spain throughout history and the effects it had on all aspects of culture. There is a strong Moroccan influence in the country, which can be seen in the design of many old palaces. We also got to see the Roman aqueducts that were built in Segovia centuries ago. This redefined how connected the entire world is to me, and made me feel more globally aware.
On a more personal level, I feel like my time abroad deepened my understanding of and compassion towards cultural differences. At home in the United States, I often find it easy to become frustrated with different cultures due to ignorance. If I don’t understand why someone dresses a certain way or acts in a certain manner, it’s easy to judge the person without considering a deeper meaning for their looks or actions. In Spain, though, we were the strange ones who acted differently and did not understand the culture. I felt what it was like to be a minority, and this caused me to reconsider the way I have interacted with foreigners in the United States.
A few key experiences led to my development during the trip. First, we were often embarrassingly clueless in our new environment. On one of our first days in Madrid, we tried to get lunch at a nearby restaurant. In Spain, unlike the United States, it is customary to walk in, pick your own table, and wait for a waiter to take your order. It took us several minutes to figure out that no hostess would be seating us, nor was their a counter for us to order at. We knew how we must have looked to the locals, but we had to learn to smile and get used to feeling slightly uncomfortable and out of place. These types of interactions caused me to reflect on how I have viewed ‘outsiders’ when I was the local.
Another key experience was befriending the students in our dorm who attending the university in Madrid. They taught us about their culture on a more personal level than we could experience in public, and a more informal level that we could get from our professors. Through their friendship we were able to see that although so many things about our lifestyles are different, human experience transcends cultural differences. We laughed at many of the same things, had many of the same goals and desires in life, and did many of the same things for fun. While we were learning about the differences between Spain and the United States in class, we learned about their similarities from the other students.
Finally, I think the immense freedom we were given had a large impact on my confidence and the way I view myself. There were times I would be walking through the city and realize no one I knew had any idea where I was except for the people I was with at the moment. No one in the States had any idea where I was or what I was experiencing, and I had no means of contacting them even if they did. Although it was scary at moments to be so completely alone, it was also very freeing. I think this helped me to grow as a person and realize that I am capable of functioning fully on my own, even though I rely heavily on several support systems while at home.
Academically, this experience improved my Spanish skills, which I will be able to apply to my minor, and my communication and problem solving skills, which I will be able to apply to all my classes and my future career in business. I am pursing a career in human resources, so my future position will likely include many forms of communication with diverse groups of people. I now have lots of experience conversing with those of diverse backgrounds. In addition, I was forced to find ways to quickly adapt to and navigate through many strange and unfamiliar circumstances, which improved my ability to think quickly and solve problems through resourcefulness. Each of these skills will help me academically while in school and throughout life.
Personally, this trip gave me a clearer picture of my future and made me more confident in my abilities to grasp my goals. I have always thought about moving away from Ohio and starting a new life in a new area after graduation, but I have also long feared being on my own. In Madrid I found it was easy for me to be far removed from the life I was used to, and I gained confidence in my abilities to adapt, meet people, and start a new life. Now I feel strongly that I can relocate to any city after graduation and be happy their. It also showed me how much I love traveling, and has inspired me to begin looking into career options that involve time abroad. I would love to return to Madrid one day, and even possibly live their long term.