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.