I used my STEP funds to fuel a semester abroad. I was the first student from Ohio State to attend the Segovia, Spain Psychology study abroad. I arrived in Segovia on August 29, 2017 and spent the semester learning about who I was in the context of another culture. While I was in Segovia, I made friends with people from across the globe. Now, I quite literally, have a new friend on every continent (excluding Antarctica). About every other weekend, I traveled to a new city in Spain, or a new country. I visited Salamanca, Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona, San Sebastian, and more. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to travel to Marrakech, Morocco, and Lisbon, Portugal.
During this trip, while spending so much time with people who were not American, I realized just how much being from this country shaped who I am. Many of my friends and acquaintances said that I was a “stereotypical American,” and at first I was incredibly offended. In the international community, American are regarded as fat, loud, lazy, and uninterested in learning about the world. While I can be loud sometimes, all of those other qualities are the opposite of my personality. And everyone agreed with me on those accounts.
I learned that, while many people associate Americans with these negative qualities, they associate us with positive ones, too. Being hardworking, bubbly, enthusiastic, and excited to meet new people are all qualities that my friends associated with Americans, and with me as well. Spending so much time on my own, only having to worry about myself, allowed me to focus more on the person that I am, and the person I am becoming. Now, since returning, I am more confident, outgoing, and willing to try new things even though they might be hard. I am also more willing to try and convince others to try those new things- places, activities, foods- with me as well.
The changes I experienced were gradual, and I did not realize that they had happened until I came back home to the United States. But I know that certain people had an enormous effect on my time and experiences in Spain. First of all, the most significant person I encountered was a woman, a mother, named Rosario. She lives in Madrid with two children, aged three and five. She was a far acquaintance of the family, and my mom asked me early on to meet her for lunch. I groaned. I did not want to spend my time with a woman who- I was convinced- would be incredibly boring. But I decided to meet her in Madrid one day, and it was the most important day of my four months there. Rosario and I really hit it off. We began spending days and weekends together. She met my family when they came to visit me in Spain, and I had the opportunity to practice my Spanish and meet her family. I felt like I had hit the jackpot. Being abroad all alone without anyone from your previous experience can be incredibly difficult, and Rosario gave me a Spanish family. For that, I will be forever grateful.
Another incredibly important person that I met while I was there was Rosario’s father, Diego. He lives on a ranch about thirty minutes outside of Segovia, and I met him when Rosario invited me to spend the night with their family at his ranch. I was apprehensive, because I did not want to infringe on their family time or make them feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, my Spanish was not particularly good and I was worried I would not be able to understand anything. But when I arrived, Diego and I hit it off. He is a humorous old man with kind eyes and an open heart. After that night at the ranch, the best night I had during my entire trip, Diego and I began getting tapas in Segovia every few weeks. He introduced me to new Spanish foods, and told me about his life. This experience really opened me up to meeting new people, and taught me that although it might be awkward at first, if I push through the uncomfortable feeling, it will almost always disappear.
Everything that influenced my time in Spain started out by making me feel uncomfortable, it seems. I had been set to room with three boys that I had never met- one from California, one from Peru, and one from Japan. I was nervous to have a bunch of messy male roommates, but it turned out to be the best living experience I could have asked for. At first, I was not sure how to approach living with my Japanese roommate. He was kind and cordial, but I knew that a variety of my actions offended him and I did not understand why. For example, if I said that I did not want to try his food, or that I did not want to go out for drinks with him, he would become sad and look frustrated. This was my first experience with a culture gap. After finding out what this was, and understanding which of my actions made him feel frustrated, I changed my behavior. Almost instantly, our relationship shifted and we became incredibly close friends. Now, he is one of the people that shifted my experience the most, because he allowed me to see inside another culture that is vastly different from my own.
But the individuals who shaped my experience the most were my close group of friends- Paula, a third culture kid who grew up all over Europe, Guus, a Dutchman through and through, and Margret and Hildur, two fun Icelandic sisters that I met through my classes. Through each of them, I learned how the culture that they grew up in shaped their personality. I learned that Northern European cultures, particularly Scandinavian ones, can be more reserved, but that does not mean that these individuals are shy. I learned about the gay culture in Europe, and what it means to be accepting of someone,their vastly different political ideology, and how to have a civil conversation with an individual whose viewpoint is light-years removed from my own. I learned how to make friends with people who, before August 29, I had absolutely nothing in common with, and afterwards, that I shared everything.
At the end of the day, these experiences taught me how to be open and accepting. I learned to face new people and situations with a smile instead of a grimace, and I learned to take difficult and uncomfortable encounters in stride. All people are united by our fear of the unknown, and our distaste for uncomfortable experiences. In learning how to embrace this, I grew as a person- thanks to the STEP signature projec