For my study abroad I went to Prague, Czech Republic and took two classes, European Art and Architecture and European and Asian Economics. In union with taking classes I was able to participate in cultural activities provided by AIFS to help enhance my study abroad.

My view of the world definitely changed while I was studying in Prague. One of the transformations that I really went through is understanding how a culture’s values and attitudes can be shaped by history. In America I think it is easy to look past history because we are a relatively new country     . We also are a mixing pot of different cultures and it is really easy to not realize how an individual culture shapes an individual’s life. I know that by staying in a different culture I was able to get a new understanding of people who are different than me. This understanding helped me to learn not only about other people but also I learned a lot about myself.

I think that the main event that helped me to understand the significance of culture was that I was about to immerse myself fully into another country. I shopped, rode the tram, ate, did laundry, went to school, built relationships, etc. and when you put it all together I had this incredible experience. In Prague, we rode on a lot of Public Transportation right away I noticed that there was a lot more quite then it would have been in America. Also there is a 10:00 PM curfew where after that time the streets are quiet and there is not much going on. On top of that, people did not interact the same way in Prague as I was used too. There was little to no small talk and it was uncommon to strike up random conversations with people.

At first I mistook this silence for rudeness. I didn’t like it because I am a loud person who talks to everyone. I thought that it was strange that nobody seemed to want to interact. I made an assumption about a group of people just because they were different than me. That all changed after I meet some Czech Students who we started hanging out with. They were really shy at first but after a while we started talking and had some great conversations. After a few of these type of experiences, I learned that just because the people here did not talk as much in public it did not mean that they were rude it just meant that they were different than me and that was okay. I might have been uncomfortable with the silence but they would have been uncomfortable with the noise.
This is just one example of how my experience in Prague helped me to understand things about myself and others. I think another huge influence on my experience was my art and Architecture Professor. In a city rich in art like Prague it was incredible to get to experience the different styles of architecture and how and why it influenced ancient Bohemia and the current Czech Republic.  In other parts of my trip we talked about the different wars and Communism and how these things affect Czech culture.

My transformation definitely affects my future career because I learned about myself and how I can best interact with people who are different than me. I had to navigate a whole new culture and that taught me to be independent as well as a better problem solver. The experience also gave me a love for learning about new things not only within my career field but about the world also. Personally the friends and experiences I had were some of the best of my life and I will never forget my travels to Prague.

Study Abroad in Valencia, Spain

For my STEP Signature Project, I studied abroad this summer for five and a half weeks in Valencia, Spain. I have a Spanish minor that I was able to complete by taking two classes while abroad.

After my time in Spain, I know that I have transformed as a person. I know it sounds cliche to say, but I truly can say that I left with a different perspective on life and a more independent attitude. One of the hardest parts about being abroad was not being immersed in a different culture, adjusting to a different way of life, or constantly speaking a different language, but rather interacting with the other students in the program. There were seven of us in total, and we were all from different universities. They were incredibly rude and disrespectful and wanted a completely different experience than I did. We would go on walking tours, and they would yawn and complain about how bored or tired they were. They would show up twenty minutes late for class every single day, skip out on meetings, and complain about having to speak Spanish all of the time. I was utterly shocked at first. However, I decided early on that I was not going to let this ruin my trip. I decided even if it meant going alone, I was going to travel and explore Spain and learn as much as I could about Spain’s culture and history. I am proud of myself because I can look back on my time abroad and say that I truly did everything that I wanted to do while there. I made the most of my time, learned to do things independently, and have returned to the United States more confident in my abilities to be alone and make decisions for myself.

In the five and a half weeks that I was in Spain, I was in nine different cities. Aside from Valencia where I was living, I visited Madrid, Toledo, Tarragona, Peñíscula, Gandía, Barcelona, Córdoba, and Granada. Tarragona, Peñíscula, Córdoba, and Granada were all excursions that I did that were not included in the program. This meant that I had to travel, find lodging, and plan the entire weekend myself. I spent hours researching all of the must-see sites in each of these cities and plotted out in a little notebook everything that I was going to do each day. In Tarragona, I toured and saw all of the ancient Roman ruin sites. Tarragona is also famous for Castells, or human towers. I was fortunate enough to be able to see the various community teams doing this activity. In Peñíscula, a beach town about one hour from Valencia city, I toured the Castell del Papa Luna, a huge castle built by the Knights Templar. In Barcelona, I experienced many of Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces: La Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, Casa Batlló, and La Pedrera. I went to the Picasso museum, saw the light show at the “Magic Fountain of Montjuïc”, and toured Camp Nou. In Córdoba and Granada, I experienced the different culture of southern Spain and all of its beautiful Arabic-influenced architecture. In Córdoba, I toured The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. This was originally a mosque, but currently is owned by the Church and operates as a cathedral. What’s interesting about this, however, is that all of the characteristics of the mosque are still there. There are the keyhole arches throughout the entire building and the mihrab that faces towards Mecca. It was breathtaking to see the mix of the two religions in this way. In Granada, I saw a flamenco show performed by gypsies in a traditional gypsy cave. I also toured La Alhambra, a huge Arabic palace. Words cannot even describe the beauty and magnificence of everything that I was fortunate enough to see.

Aside from traveling throughout Spain on the weekends, I also spent a significant amount of time exploring Valencia. Nearly every single day after class, I went and saw a different site in the city. The program guides commented that by the time I left, I knew Valencia better than any of them. One of my favorite visits was to la Parroquia de San Nicolás. This is a church nicknamed “The Sistine Chapel of Valencia”, and the nickname itself explains how breathtaking this was. Every week, I had fresh squeezed orange juice from the local supermarket. You would literally get a plastic bottle, put it up to the machine, pull a handle down, and fresh oranges would be squeezed before your eyes. It was the best orange juice I’ve ever had. I traveled to a local farm to help make and eat paella, a traditional Valencian dish. I also saw a novice bullfight. For my culture class, we each had to present a research project. I chose to research Spanish bullfighting and after visiting the local museum and spending countless hours reading everything I could find about bullfighting on the internet, I went to see the spectacle for myself. While watching six bulls be stabbed and ultimately killed is not something that I think I would ever want to see again, I’m glad that I went and experienced this aspect of their culture. To navigate the city, I did as the locals do and got a “valenbisi”, or city bike membership. My favorite part of the entire trip, however, was the relationship that I built with my host family.

I couldn’t be more grateful to have lived with a family that made saying goodbye so hard. They were not just a place to sleep and eat as many other students’ families were. My family was so sweet and caring and genuinely wanted to build a relationship with me. I lived with my host parents, Cristina and Vicente, their sixteen-year-old son, Lukas, and their dog, Pepo. They have two other children as well who are older and don’t live in their apartment. While Vicente and Lukas spoke some English, we only used this as a last resort. I spent the entire time I was there speaking Spanish, asking questions, and trying to practice the language as much as I could. I ate every meal with them and it was some of the best food I have ever had. Everything there is so fresh and delicious, especially the fruit. Watermelon and honeydew melon taste 100x better in Spain than in the United States. I also have developed a love for gazpacho and tortilla española, which is basically an egg and potato bake. My family helped me plan all of the trips that I took as well. While I said my tearful goodbyes, they promised to come to the United States one day and Cristina even said she would come to my wedding if I invite her.

My time in Spain is something that I will never forget. I have noticed since returning from Spain that I have been able to do things more independently and to be okay with that. I also was able to majorly improve my confidence in speaking Spanish. I learned that it was okay to make a mistake when speaking because the person I was talking to would likely understand me anyways. This was a huge difference from my perfectionist nature. I was able to improve the speed at which I speak Spanish, and even by the end was beginning to think in Spanish. This relates to my academic goals by fulfilling the requirements of my Spanish minor. This relates to my personal goals of being as close to fluent as possible in Spanish. This relates to my professional goals and future plans of being a lawyer by giving me Spanish as a tool with which I can use to communicate with others, as there are many Spanish speakers in the United States. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity, and will never forget everything that I experienced and learned.

Parroquia de San Nicolás

Parc Güell

La Alhambra

Costa Rica Study Abroad

This summer, I spent five weeks studying abroad in Heredia, Costa Rica, through ISA’s Spanish Literature and Language program. I lived in a homestay and completed six credit hours, taking a Spanish literature course along with a Spanish phonetics course. We also spent the weekends going on two planned excursions to Volcán Arenal and Manuel Antonio national parks.

This opportunity brought about various changes in my perspective on our world. Firstly, I quickly realized that the world is much bigger than I thought. As a Spanish dual degree student, I had wrongly assumed that I would have a good idea of what life in Costa Rica would be like, but quickly realized I didn’t know much about Latin American culture at all. There were so many new words, traditions, foods, and mannerisms that I was not aware of. I learned so much about the richness of Costa Rican culture, and my appreciation for the Hispanic people, culture, and language has grown exponentially through this experience.

The first event that triggered this personal change was my interactions and relationships with my host family. Living in a Costa Rican household was the highlight of my experience, as well as the place where I learned the most Spanish, as well as spoke the most Spanish. It was there where I increased my fluency the most and was exposed to the most culturally specific vocabulary and phrases—which, many of the times, did not translate directly. Needless to say, my list of words expanded quite a bit! I also had the chance to meet and talk with a few nurses—which was a very valuable experience given that one my courses of study is nursing.

The second event that brought about a change in me were my specific courses at la Universidad Latina along with the professors and fellow students in the program. Since the program directors were from a third party, the students enrolled in the program were from all over the country—and my roommate herself was from Iowa. For me, the diversity of the students was incredibly interesting. I learned a lot about the geographical differences within my own country as well as those of Costa Rica, through interactions with my professors and course leads at la Universidad Latina.

The third experience that engendered a change in my perspectives was experiencing the richness of the wildlife in Costa Rica. The natural beauty of Costa Rica was breathtaking. Waking up every morning and seeing the sunlight climb over the mountain peaks was the perfect start to every day. I never got tired of it—even when the unexpected volcanic ash made my flight cancel. Every weekend was spent exploring the vast countryside—including Manuel Antonio national park, Volcán Arenal, and Cahuita, along the Caribbean coast. Each of these experiences not only demonstrated the vast beauty of the country, but also instilled in me a profound appreciation

These aforementioned changes are extremely crucial to my ongoing personal and academic development; especially given that they play a central role in achieving my goals. Being in Costa Rica for over a month, I can happily say that my Spanish improved incredibly. Given that this was my first experience in a Spanish-speaking country—it was extremely successful. I loved every second of it and cannot wait to return!

Israel Study Abroad

My STEP project consisted of a Study Abroad program in Israel at Tel Aviv University. I took two courses, one on the history of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and another on the Arab Uprising. The STEP money I received went towards my transportation to and from Israel.

Israel is often perceived as a country plagued by conflict and adversity. The portrayal of the country and the ongoing conflict with Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries is often very biased in the media. Getting the opportunity to travel to Israel for myself very much humanized a country that is often depicted as almost abusive towards Palestine and its people. People there do not live in constant fear for their lives; instead the country is full of life and opportunities for a wide array of people, no matter, age, gender and more. Being given the opportunity to live among the Israelis and experience their lifestyle gave me a new perspective, as well as helped me appreciate my own lifestyle back in the United States.

The first experience that led to my transformation from this trip was living with Israelis at the University. Interacting with them every day made me feel accepted into their culture and helped me step outside of my comfort zone. Since I went to the gym to exercise 5 out of 7 days of the week, I met several Israelis there who I became friendly with. I was eventually invited over to one of their houses for a Shabbat dinner and went out with several of them at night. We even exchanged language lessons, with them helping me improve my Hebrew and me helping them improve their English.

Another experience that was very eye-opening was our trip to Jerusalem. I went with my roommates and we stayed for two days, visiting many of the religious and historical sites there, such as the Western Wall. The Western Wall is arguably one of the most significant religious site for the Jewish people because it is the last remaining wall of the Temple that was destroyed. This was the very same temple that Abraham worshipped at and where he almost sacrificed Isaac to God. Being able to pray with the Israelis and meditate at this extremely important site in Israel was one of the simplest things I could do, but also one of the most meaningful. I reconnected with my Judaism and evaluated myself as a person in the country of my ancestors.

The last experience may not have directly happened to me, but is still something I will not forget for a long time. One day after leaving Jerusalem, there was a terrorist attack in the very spot that we had been standing in 24 hours prior. Two police officers were killed, as well as the terrorists who attacked the area. This made me appreciate how I was raised, always knowing I was going to be safe and cared for by my parents. In a country that is at constant war with its neighbors, you are not necessarily guaranteed this type of security. Anything can happen in any given place, but one must take certain precautions when in higher risk areas like Israel. However, what also struck me is how prideful and resilient the Israeli people are. They have fought to keep their homeland and would not move anywhere else given the choice. I heard several stories of those who left Israel for a certain period of time to travel, or live in the United States, but they all returned to Israel because it is their home and they love it.

My study abroad trip to Israel changed my view on foreign countries and their affairs. As an international studies major, it is my responsibility to be more aware of these various cultures and have a degree of appreciation for them. My trip to Israel has inspired me to continue to travel, certainly back to Israel and definitely elsewhere across the world. I hope to one day potentially even live in Israel and work for the government there. I learned a lot about the country of Israel while studying abroad, but developed an even deeper understanding of myself being in a country far from home with my own responsibilities.

Salamanca Spain Summer 2017

Name: Austin Keller


Type of Project: Education Abroad


Over Summer 2017 I participated in an education abroad experience at the University of Salamanca, Spain.  During my six week stay I lived with a host family, while enrolled in three Spanish courses which covered Spanish culture, writing, and grammar.  My program provided me time to explore and learn about the culture of not only Spain, but also Portugal and the Netherlands.


Upon reflection of my time in Spain, I have come to realize much about the world that surrounds me as well as about myself.  Being my first trip out of the United States, I now know that I knew so little about life outside of my own.  This project allowed me to both observe and practice a different type of lifestyle, and I feel as though it has greatly transformed my attitudes, actions, and perceptions.


From the time I stepped out of the airport in Spain till the time that I landed back in Chicago, all I could think about was how incredibly different the Spanish lifestyle is.  Upon arriving in Barcelona by train from Madrid, we were greeted by hundreds of fireworks and firecrackers.  Little did I know that I was arriving in Barcelona during the festival of San Juan, known to Spaniards as the beginning of Summer.  I was amazed at how freely the people of Spain celebrated, and how joyous they were to celebrate such an occasion.  Even though I was exhausted from the journey to Spain, all I wanted to do was soak up the city of Barcelona.


Although first impressions were high, the trip continued to become more memorable as time went on.  Barcelona was only the first of many excursions during my time in Spain; throughout my trip I had the chance to go to Madrid, Toledo, Santander, Valencia, Segovia, Aveiro (Portugal), and Amsterdam (Netherlands).  Each city had its own unique character to it and while they shared the Spanish background, they all had different histories.  Even though being in Spain was my first time out of the country, I had the opportunity to be both a tourist and a certain kind of “local” within my host city of Salamanca.  Living life as the locals did in Salamanca allowed me to experience life in a completely different way.  I quickly realized that life in Spain is more relaxed and enjoyed: they don’t fret about the future, they live within the moment, and they do not linger on the past.  Because it was Summer, the Spanish students were not at University; however, the city was still vibrant with the native people of Salamanca.  Each day, we spent one to two hours enjoying both lunch and dinner with friends and family, and the hospitality was unbeatable.


One my favorite aspects of the trip was being able to interact so closely with my host family.  My host mother, Concha, has been hosting international students for over 25 years; so, she had a lot of advice on how to get the most out of my time abroad.  She encouraged me to venture through the city, travel on the weekend, try new foods, and even celebrate the way the locals do.  Under her guidance, I adapted well to the laid back lifestyle of the Spaniards, and have learned to incorporate aspects of their lifestyle into my life back home such as to not worry about what is out of your control- enjoy life.  Another important interaction I had was with my writing professor, Inma.  Inma taught me not only how to improve my writing, but also how to get the most out of every moment in your day.  She was understanding when we had to miss class to travel to other cities in Spain, and always took the time to talk with us after class about our little trips.  Towards the end of our time in Salamanca, she also took a friend and I to coffee at which she continued to give us lessons about grammar, the history of the city, and interesting facts about Spanish culture.  I will never forget the true dedication Inma held to her teaching profession.


Life in the United States can be extremely competitive and we constantly are running a mile a minute; however, the transformation I experienced in participating on my study abroad led me to alter the way I handle the pace of life.  While I cannot change the atmosphere around me, I am able to change how I manage it.  I have learned to take time for myself, focus on the positives in my life, to not worry about the past, and to look to the future with open eyes.  This change will allow me to reduce the stressors in my life in order to achieve the goals I have set for both my academic, personal, and professional goals.  As a student who wants to go to medical school, this trip has given me a new path to realizing my plans.

Toledo, Spain Study Abroad

My STEP Signature Project led me to Toledo, Spain,  a small city just south of Madrid that I called home for six weeks while living with a host family. In addition to exploring Toledo and a variety of other Spanish cities, I studied the history of art and architecture in Spain and masters of Spanish painting at La Fundación José Ortega y Gasset-Gregorio Marañón. When I first arrived in Spain, I had already decided that I would leave behind as many aspects of American culture as possible in order to fully immerse myself into the Spanish culture. In my opinion, the decision to fully commit to living like a Spaniard in all aspects of life proved vital in my transformation as a human, and the expansion of my worldview. What I did not realize was that I would actually become what, to me, almost feels like a different person while studying in Spain. Studying abroad has given me many gifts, a few including  adaptability, understanding, and confidence.

The ability to adapt to an unfamiliar situation is extremely important, especially in a foreign country. I recognized this the very second I walked off of the plane at the Aeropuerto Madrid-Barajas as I found my way first to baggage claim by a train in the airport, and finally to the pick-up location for other students headed to La Fundación Jose Ortega y Gasset- Gregorio y Marañon. In a country such as Spain where the culture and style of living are completely different from in America, quick adaptation is a great asset to possess in order to fully enjoy the adventure and immerse yourself into the culture. One example is the process that I went through when adjusting to the eating and sleeping schedules in Spain. I ate breakfast whenever I woke up for the day, but breakfast food is different there than in the U.S. Usually a Spaniard will eat a pastry or some bread and a cup of coffee, which, don’t get me wrong, is delicious, but I am accustomed to eating less sugar and more protein for breakfast. Lunch, or “la comida,” is eaten later in the day around 2:30pm or 3:00pm and is the largest meal in terms of quantity of food, so I had to adapt to a larger time gap between meals. Finally, dinner is eaten at around 10pm-11pm, and people are usually awake for a little while after that. As I adapted more to my new and exciting surroundings, I began to compare and contrast American and Spanish culture, which I feel has made me more understanding and appreciative of both cultures and now that I am home I am able to live a lifestyle that reflects aspects of both countries. Additionally, I felt more confident making small talk with shop owners, or joking around with taxi drivers. Ordering at restaurants became second nature, and I truly started to feel like a Spaniard.

The main causes of my transformation are what I believe to be the people that I met and became friends with, and my ability to travel around to different Spanish cities. From Madrid to Barcelona, each city has its own charm and flavor. Beginning with what I consider to be one of the most important aspects of life in general and definitely of my travels is the opportunity I had to meet people that I now consider family and great friends. During my six weeks in Spain, I lived with a host family in Toledo which included my host mom; Concepción, brother; Miguel Ángel, sister; Elena, dog; Chispi, and a variety of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The love and support that they gave to me is incredible, and by the end I actually felt like a part of their family. Along with my host family, I met amazing people at La Fundación where I studied. Many of the students who also enrolled in this program are students at The University of Minnesota, so now I have a great excuse to head west and visit them. These friends are people who I traveled with on weekends and experienced all of the ups and downs of adjusting to the culture with, so they are friends that I hold dear to my heart. Additionally, all of the faculty and staff at La Fundación helped make the experience what it was, particularly the program coordinators Yuki, José Luis, Paco, and Miguel, Director of La Fundación Guillermo, my professor Araceli, and other staff members. I felt extremely comfortable coming to any of them with the many questions and curiosities floating through my head, which helped me sort out some aspects of the culture that I did not quite understand which led to greater reflection on both countries as I mentioned above.

The other experience that I believe defines my transformation is a weekend trip that I took alone to Granada and to Málaga. While I was there, I saw La Alhambra, a Science Park in Granada, roamed the streets, and spent the day at the beach in Málaga. For being a person who enjoys spending time alone and adventuring alone, I felt extremely excited to embark on this weekend trip. Among the excitement: however, there was anxiety and worry looming for fear of missing one of the buses or getting lost. Even though those worries lingered in the back of my mind, I successfully navigated the area and created many great memories. My weekend trip to Granada definitely taught me a lot about how to adapt to unfamiliar situations, especially when I had no one else there to help if I felt unsure about something. Although unfamiliarity is uncomfortable at first, it is a great way to grow and gain confidence in yourself and your ability to adapt to any given situation.

Reflecting back on my experience in Spain, I cannot feel any more grateful than I already do to have had the opportunity to carry out my STEP Signature Project there. The way I see the world is completely different, with eyes that are wider and see more clearly when thinking about cultural differences and people who come from different backgrounds than me. Having this experience has given me a greater appreciation and understanding of my Spanish major, by equipping me with linguistic and cultural knowledge that can only be gained by visiting a Spanish speaking country. One example is returning back to America and relating more to my instructors and professors that come from Spain. I can understand the fact that they had to change their entire lifestyle and had to adapt to a different culture when they moved to America in order to pursue higher education, which is extremely commendable. Overall, I am extremely grateful for what my STEP Signature Project has given me because they are gifts that have completely transformed who I am as an individual and who I want to be going forward.

STEP Project Reflection – Goethe Institute, Dresden

My STEP Signature Project was my study abroad trip to Dresden, Germany. There I studied German and the Goethe Institute for eight weeks, while talking exclusively in German and experiencing the day-to-day life in Germany.

While I had an amazing time in Germany, it really opened my eyes to how much I appreciate being home in the States. It brought me some understanding of what it is like to be a foreigner relying on the hospitality if others to get through some cultural miscommunication. I thought I knew what it was like to not be comfortable talking to strangers, but it is a completely different story when you can only speak some of the language of the country. This experience brought me greater understanding of the feeling of otherness that one can feel when in a new place and without the support of friends or family.

The simple chores of going to the grocery store or trying to order a meal and speaking well enough so that the person with whom you are speaking does not switch to English is difficult at best, impossible at worst. Some poorly phrased sentences mixed with a lack of confidence in the language lead to several  conversations switching to English which should have gone smoothly. I knew what to say, how to say the basic concept, but the pressure and nerves of speaking to someone who knew that I cannot communicate at the level of someone my age was frustrating and the largest hurdle in my attempt to assimilate to the country.

Then I thought about this in relation to my experience on the other side of the interaction, as an American who has spoken English my entire life and my interactions with people my age or older who can’t express themselves due to their limited familiarity in my own language. I thought I could empathize. After all, I had also been studying Spanish since I was six. But this was different. My ability to eat depended on my ability to communicate with a cashier about the cost of my groceries. My ability to buy a train ticket depended on my ability. Some people I interacted with knew English well enough to help me, some didn’t. My goal was to not find out who could and couldn’t, so I assumed no one could.

As the weeks passed, these simple tasks got easier and I fell into routine. This combined with nearly four hours of German instruction every day had me improving in my speaking skills. Listening, however, was another thing entirely. Listening to a foreign language is interesting when you study it. When you first begin, you want to tune it out. You can’t understand that, that’s too fast, etc. The struggle is to focus. Keep listening, even when nothing is understandable. Catching just one word is enough to begin to find a place in the topic at hand. It is exhausting though. I did it for just under two months. I was tired when I got home, and excited to listen to English once again on the radio, TV, etc. because it is easy, and I don’t have to think so hard. That was my life for two months. There are people in the United States who have lived like that for two, five, ten years and counting. It gets easier, but not always perfect. Focus is still required. I can now try to empathize better with those I know struggle to fit in, even when they are alone watching TV or listening to the radio. In this understanding, I hope to be able to help anyone who asks it of me.

This change is significant to my personal goals because I have wanted to live abroad since I was old enough to understand the concept. I have always wanted to be fluent in another language, and have pursued classes and experiences that will get me to these goals faster. I underestimated how difficult it can be, but in the face of such  difficulty, I also underestimated myself. I have been through it, and I have learned to not be afraid to make a fool of myself if it is in order to continue to learn. Being bold and forward in language learning is the only sure-fire way to get there. I am excited to do this again for another language, in another country, vastly different yet again from anything I have encountered thus far. If anything, my overcoming of these hurdles has strengthened my belief in myself and my ability to overcome my own discomfort. I look forward to challenging myself again in my endeavors to gain exposure to language and culture.

Barcelona: as Amazing as it is Transformative

STEP allowed me the amazing opportunity of traveling to Barcelona, Spain for six weeks this past summer to complete my Spanish minor at Ohio State. Combining the classroom learning I received at Universitat Pompeu Fabra with experiential learning in the city’s many museums, tours, and cultural hubs truly proved to be a transformative experience.

My journey through the streets and wonders of Barcelona was key to transforming the understanding I have of myself both as an individual and as a person living within contemporary society. As I ventured alone to Spain and explored many of its beauties such as Parc Guell, La Boqueria, and El Raval alone, I discovered the meaning of inner strength and resilience. In discovering a city without cell service and my immediate support net of people, I took to reflecting and writing everyday, where I learned strength through inner centering and focus. I begged a lot of difficult questions of myself; who am I? Who do I want to be? Am I being true to myself in everything I am doing?

Spain presented me with the opportunity to answer a lot of these questions. Between all the days I spent in my favorite cheap eatery around the corner from my house, hanging out with my friends at every sidewalk cafe, and exploring the meaning of art in my classes and in the city’s multitude of museums, self-discovery was unavoidable. I made the active choice everyday to explore the city on my own, which gave me time to write down my thoughts and think in depth about questions of identity, place, and next steps. Though these thoughts flourish at home as well, experiencing a new lifestyle and place gave me the chance to analyze things differently. I will never forget climbing to the top of a hill, looking out to the city around me, and taking in the view as new realizations and ideas washed over me.

Visiting a foreign country also opened my eyes to a renewed understanding of the world around me. Often, it seems as though the political moment we live in and the state of affairs of our country is universal, since that is the reality we occupy. As I immersed myself in Catalonia, a region of cultural pride, community strength, and progressive politics, I came to realize that my reality is not everyone’s reality. That different cities, regions, and countries have different politics and, more specifically, hold different cultural attitudes towards people of different nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities, races, and genders. Though we are held together by forces such as globalization and global capitalism, the unfortunate norms that hold true in our society are thankfully much apart from those in Barcelona.

This much became evident to me as I walked the streets of Barcelona and observed societal patterns. In analyzing the beautifully detailed street art that lined the multicultural neighborhood known as El Raval, I understood the norms of acceptance and community resilience abundant there. I noticed that I was walking through a community that had a long history of transformation and oppression, and that the people there were dedicated to maintaining their culture, history, and safety. Barcelona afforded me the opportunity to attend a myriad of gay pride events that were packed with allies and queer people, alike. Their events were organized with visibility, community, and safety in mind where people from all over were welcome to indulge in celebrating one another. Finally, in sharing conversations with my host mom, I came to learn what it is to live in a society that survived a fascist dictator that reigned during our contemporary global history. I felt the overwhelming effort to transform their society into one of acceptance and cultural bloom, and how history brings people together to fight for a future of independence.

Discovering myself and the world around me was vital to my personal development and to setting new personal, professional, and academic goals. Whereas the Spanish language was previously something I enjoyed sharing with my family, it has now become something I am comfortable using in settings that would work to serve those around me. In answering a lot of questions I had about myself and my life, I realized that my future will entail traveling, influencing social change, and taking more classes related to writing, international studies, and even film. I quickly learned that my days in college are fleeting, and that it is up to me to spend them as fruitfully as possible with the people I treasure, doing all the things that we love. In short, I was inspired to live my best life, aim to change the world, and continue traveling.

Costa Rica Experience

Costa Rica Experience

I knew since high school that I wanted to study abroad in college. I wanted my Spanish to make it to the next level, and I thought Costa Rica would be a great place. In Costa Rica I got to spend nine weeks living in a foreign country with a host family. For my STEP Signature Project I spent five weeks studying Spanish in Heredia, Costa Rica and then I spent four weeks volunteering in a nursing home.

When I was young, it drove me absolutely crazy when I heard people speaking foreign languages. It was my belief that if you are in “America” you should speak English. During high school I started taking Spanish classes and this opened my eyes to the beauty and culture of other languages. I realized that language is important because it helps people to communicate and express themselves. Furthering my Spanish education at Ohio State I learned that I never know the full story. There are people who are here working extremely hard because they believe that their kids deserve better and to me, that is noble. I learned that we should embrace cultures different than our own, because we can learn about them.

In Costa Rica, I was amazed how many people spoke English, and the general gratitude people had for me when I would try to speak Spanish. I am nowhere near fluent, but they appreciated my effort. That is the attitude I now try to carry in United States. People are not perfect. I am not perfect. I should not judge people based on their ability to speak my language. This experience really modified my view of the way that people operate under different languages.

Another thing that I came to realize what that my definition of “America” was dramatically different than the people of Costa Rica. To them, we were both Americans. I was from North America and they were from Central America. When I said “America” I meant the United States, they did not. I realized that I held an inflated view of my country. I lived in a bubble where “America” was my world; little did I know, it was also a lot of people’s worlds.

During my STEP Signature Project I had a lot of interactions that helped me to realize the beauty of language and of perception. My host family had very broken English, but I would always appreciate when the nephew would try to speak to me in my language. To me, it meant he cared. This helped me to realize that people do not expect perfection, just effort. I also was able to see that words are not necessary to communicate. Yes, I have heard this before, but working at a nursing home allowed me to see this lesson in action. One man could not even form sounds, but he loved to color and do puzzles. When I would walk in he would always wave at me and hold my hand. Physical touch was something a lot of these people did not get enough of anymore. A lot of them loved hugs, even when they did not have the words to communicate this.

Another valuable lesson I learned was the ability to learn through others. I was surrounded with a group of amazing people that quickly became my friends. I was able to learn from their interactions. For example, the “America” issue came to my attention when one of my friends asked the guy next to her if he was “American,” to which he replied, “We are ALL American.” That was a valuable lesson that I was able to learn from. Beyond their experiences in Costa Rica I was able to learn more about different walks of life in the States and different beliefs that people had. Going to a foreign country has a strange way to connect people, and I will forever be grateful for this opportunity.

One big take-away I had from this experience was the ability to slow down. Costa Ricans operate on “Tico Time” which means they are always late. They live by the “Pura Vida” motto, which means “pure life” or enjoy the ride. I come from the Chicago area where people live and die by the hustle and bustle. In Costa Rica, dining was an experience, people walked without haste. That was dramatically different to what I know and am accustomed to, yet being able to experience that slower pace of life was a great experience that I am very grateful for. I recognized that you are able to enjoy so much more in a given day if you are not constantly worried about what is next. Being able to embrace the day to day, was something I want to carry with me the rest of my life.

Whether it be people greeting me at a dance class that I took, or the way tour guides interacted with us, or our professors’ patience, the people definitely helped me to realize these lessons.

The lessons I learned about the value of culture and people in Costa Rica are definitely important in my life. From an academic perspective, I have a great opportunity to go to school. A lot of people do not get this, and as such I should be taking advantage of this. From a personal standpoint, I was reminded yet again that it is important for your health to slow down every once in a while. Life does not have to be a race and you should enjoy the people around you. After all, people are important. In Costa Rica I did a much better job than usual interacting with the people around me and this was great for the soul.

From a professional stand point, I learn a lot about the value of communication. Now, more than ever business is operating in a global world, and as such cross-cultural communication is imperative. This experience has allowed me to recognize some of the challenges of this, but also some of the great benefits. Language barriers make things hard, they also undeniably make communication more difficult. However, when you can overcome them and work with people to portray your thoughts great things come from them.

I am very grateful for STEP and the opportunity it provided me to challenge my ways of thinking and preconceived notions that I had.

Prague Study Abroad

I used my STEP funding for an economic affairs course at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. I went with the American Institute of Foreign Study and lived in the Masarykova Kolej dormitory.

Up until this amazing experience, I have spent my entire life living in Cincinnati, Ohio. I have always lived in a quite neighborhood where everyone seems to know everyone. This upbringing is one of the main reasons I wanted to live in a foreign country for an extended period of time. Looking back on this summer, I feel I have stepped out of my parochial mindset and can effectively interact with people with much different backgrounds. I think this can help me work more efficiently in group settings at Ohio State, especially with international students whose first language might not be English. Additionally, I feel more confident and comfortable with who I am and who I want to become. I believe this transformation was due to living by myself, 5000 miles away from home.

I now feel I am in a position to fulfill my dream of living and working in a foreign country for an extended period of time. I have longed to live in the United Kingdom during my twenties, working for a British soccer club. I believe my STEP experience has gotten me prepared for such a life change. I am able to effectively work with people of all backgrounds and feel confident living on my own.

There were a lot of amazing sites to see in downtown Prague; however, I believe I got the most out of my experience in the classroom. My course detailed both the individual and joint economies of most European and Asian countries. In the future I hope to live and work in a European country. Therefore, it was great to learn about the economic culture of many countries I would love to live in someday. Inside the class, there were students from all around the world. It was great to learn about their schooling and culture as a whole.

Additionally, I feel living in the Masarykova Kolej dormitory was very transformative. This dorm was located in Prague 6, which was about a 20-minute tram ride from our school buildings in Prague 2. We lived with Czech students of the nearby engineering college. I thought it was great to live in the outskirts of the city and explore the places that the Czech students recommended. If I instead lived in the city center, I would not have seen all that Prague has to offer.

Living in Prague 6 also forced me to get used to using public transformation on a regular basis. Prague has an advanced transportation system involving an underground metro and above ground trams and busses. Prior to this study abroad, I had little to no experience with public transportation in Cincinnati. However, in Prague, I was taking the metro at least 4 times a day going to and from Prague 1&2. This provided me with good insight on what it is like to live and work in a large European city.

I will remember my time in Prague for the rest of my life for many reasons. The architectural beauty paired with nearly ideal weather made me wake up with a smile everyday. I was able to expand both my economic and cultural foundation to Europe and Asia. I learned how to live and work in a European city. I have reaffirmed my dream of living in Europe, and now feel poised enough to make it a reality. Meeting new people allowed me to cement my own ideals and realize the person I want to become. I will be forever thankful for Ohio State and the second year transformational experience program.