For my STEP project, I participated in an Education Abroad program based in Madrid. The program lasted 4 weeks, from the first week of May to the first week of June. The purpose of this program was to gain a better cultural understanding of Spain and the many ways it is similar to and different from the United States.
I knew this project would challenge me in many ways. I had to take a risk and step outside my comfort zone. But, it wasn’t just a step out of my comfort zone – it was a month of staying outside my comfort zone. One of the biggest transformations I went through was transitioning from being a tourist to a traveler. Traveling is idealized in a way that makes you think spending an extended amount of time in a foreign country will be the same as a week-long vacation in Florida – except it isn’t. Traveling challenges you in ways you don’t expect. We didn’t stay in 5-star resorts; we lived in dorms with minimal wifi and uncomfortable beds. When you’re on vacation, convenience and comfort matter. Traveling, though, is about everything you experience outside of the place you sleep. This kind of traveling wasn’t for everyone, and about the second week I started noticing people who were struggling with being a traveler and weren’t able to enjoy the experience along with its challenges. Being a traveler is all about being comfortable with the uncomfortable. I had to be open to trying new things, and accept that I would make mistakes.
There were several experiences that contributed to my change from tourist to traveler. One of the first days being abroad, a girl in our small group had her phone pickpocketed on the metro. We all quickly realized that we could not have a false sense of security and needed to be vigilant with our belongings. Additionally, the majority of our time in Spain was without a tour guide or our professor, so it was up to us to decide where to go for everything. We had to learn how to navigate public buses, the metro, and trains in order to go where we wanted. This wasn’t always easy and occasionally we missed our stop or went the wrong way. We also experienced a few times where we were unwelcome, whether it was overhearing people talk about us or someone telling us their shop was closed, even though it was not closed for other people. It was challenging to find places where the whole group wanted to go and to constantly be trying new places. However, as we learned our way around, we became more familiar and comfortable on the streets.
After about 1-2 weeks, people started realizing that we had different goals and expectations for this study abroad experience. With that, I began exploring more on my own or with 1-2 others, rather than in a large group. This initially felt uncomfortable. We didn’t necessarily have one destination in mind, and would end up going to different neighborhoods and decide there if we wanted to check out various shops, historic buildings, and restaurants.
Then, people started getting sick and exhausted. Most of our days consisted of walking tours throughout the morning, a long lunch, short break, then heading out to explore on our own. After walking miles more than I’m used to everyday, it drained a lot of my energy, but the excitement of discovering a cool new place far exceeded the urge to stay inside. When you start getting tired, you start trying to do things that are more familiar, like eat at McDonald’s instead of a local restaurant. Other people stayed in the residence rather than exploring the city. As a tourist, you frequently are looking for fun, relaxation, and/or comfort. I found that overcoming the desire to stick to the familiar and comfortable, and trying to experience as much of the culture and history in a place is what it means to be a traveler.
The biggest takeaway that I learned from this project was how to be open to change and adapt to my surroundings. I look at change as being a large part of my future career. I plan on working in the computer science and data space, which changes dramatically from year to year. Additionally, I do not plan on living in the same city throughout my career. I gained a significant amount of confidence in my ability to adjust to living, and learning to enjoy being in a new place. In regards to academics, I have learned that traveling is going to be an important part of my future, and I want to include classes related to international relations into my coursework.