During the autumn semester of 2016, I began my STEP Signature Project on a seven hour flight from New York City to Madrid, Spain. Over the course of the next four months, I was challenged to enhance both my understanding of the Spanish language and the nuances of Spanish life through a complete immersion of living in Spain.
I first began studying Spanish in the seventh grade, and was quickly introduced to the idea of cultural immersion. For nearly eight years, I planned and dreamed about studying abroad. Once I arrived in Madrid, I elected to stretch myself and take several classes entirely in Spanish. Beyond the accelerated language growth I saw in myself, I began to experience a slightly different worldview and to recognize the influence culture has on our interpretation of history. As an anthropologist, I look to understand all points of view; my experiences abroad allowed me to practice that skill. Being abroad helped me also to realize my passion for exploring new places; for the first time, I was forced to communicate in languages other than English and navigate cities without correct maps and limited knowledge of the local culture. In short, I loved it.
I chose to take classes in Spanish, with professors who made it clear to all of us that their English was, at best, dubious; at that moment I decided on a sort of challenge I had never before faced. I had never before struggled to understand a lecturer, nor had to write extra notes in the margins of notebooks trying to master words I did not know. These new obstacles were at first frustrating to me; as the semester passed, however, I noticed myself needing my dictionary less, and my notes became a gauge of how quickly I was gaining fluency. As I continued to explore the country, I also began to better understand how interconnected language and culture are. I learned how so many words have double meanings in Spanish because of Spain’s history, and how some words have different meanings in different regions because of the way each region’s culture developed separately.
In both my classes and my interactions with my host family, I was granted the ability to see more clearly the effect of culture and history on our perception of reality. My host mother was a lively octogenarian named Norka who lived through the entirety of Spain’s era of dictatorship. Because of her youth in some of the most totalitarian years of Francisco Franco’s rule, she was a staunch believer in personal freedoms; as a Spanish woman who had been married during the most traditional years of Fracoism, she also believed in family duties that surpass the importance of personal freedom. She believed in two seemingly contradictory value systems, but somehow could justify both. My conversations with Norka allowed me to watch a history I had never before learned, unfold from a point of view I had never been challenged to adopt.
During my time abroad, I had the opportunity to take a weeklong excursion with my study abroad program to Morocco. While in Morocco, I was given the chance to participate in a comedy skit for our group. Of the four American students invited, not one of us spoke Arabic, and not one of our hosts spoke English or Spanish. That night was one of the most fun and hilarious, as all of us bumbled around trying to understand each other. My time in Morocco helped me to better understand how humans will try to come together even when the most basic communication is inhibited; from our (surely botched) skit, to spontaneous soccer games that broke out between local kids and students, to a short friend with a lopsided grin that I made while sinking my feet into the desert sand, I continuously saw the little friendships and connections that people formed.
Having the ability to finally complete one of my dreams mattered to me as much as every other time I grew personally from my time abroad; it solidified my belief that with perseverance, I can achieve my goals. One of these goals is the acquisition of multiple languages, as I want to be able to communicate with people from all over the world. Studying in Spain helped me reach an incredible level of Spanish fluency, and helped me to better understand the ways in which I best learn languages; I know that these skills, although I pursue them as part of my own passion and not as a footnote on a resume, will help me to better grow and succeed in my career as I enter the professional world. As a burgeoning social scientist, the unique challenges I have faced as a result of my time abroad will help me also to better formulate my research to account for points of view I don’t yet know.
As I continue to grow personally, both during college and throughout life, the lessons I learned from my stay in Spain will stay with me and continue to positively influence my thoughts, opinions, and career. I look forward to watching myself continue to grow.