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.