For my STEP Signature project, I did a semester-long exchange program in Madrid, Spain. I lived in an apartment in the city and took classes at La Universidad Pontificia de Comillas.
I was not quite sure what to expect when I began my study abroad journey. I had been to Europe twice before, so I was familiar with some aspects of the cultures that existed within the EU, but Spain was a bit more of a mystery to me. As a Spanish student in the US, we are often taught more about Latin America than Spain, which is tough for someone who is going to be studying in Spain. Once I got to Spain, I began to understand how different the culture was from anything I had experienced. I think sometimes European countries are lumped together but after studying in Spain and having the opportunity to travel to 9 countries through the semester, I have now realized that the cultures are in fact quite different. Before I went abroad, I genuinely thought that I was going to be one of the people that became enchanted by Europe and would want to live there after I graduated college. I have since adjusted my views, and I have realized a lot about what I want from a place that I call home.
While in Madrid, I met a lot of people from around the world on exchange, and my interactions with those people helped me learn a lot about how other people view the world, and why they view it that way. I lived with a French girl, and throughout the semester she had several friends visit. I found that many stereotypes of French people that Americans have are in fact somewhat accurate, but I also found why French people act and do some of these things. It was interesting to see what fellow Americans felt about other countries and other people, but it was even more interesting to see what other Europeans thought about these subjects. I gained an immense sense of cultural understanding and I realized that I don’t necessarily have to like a culture to respect it. I also realized that language has a huge impact on culture and knowing Spanish made me understand the culture of Spain so much more.
Spanish culture for me was a particularly frustrating experience at times. I am from the mid-Atlantic and enjoy efficiency and a faster pace of life. Spain beats to a very different drum, and I very often found shops closed when they said they were open online, customer service lackluster at best, and it seems like any request made to a Spanish person takes forever. I eventually adjusted more to the “go with the flow” lifestyle: eating dinner at 10 pm, and going into things without a plan, but I also realized that I would not want to live in Spain when I was older. This was a disappointing and enlightening realization because I really wanted to love Spain so much that I would want to live there, but the fact is that my personality just did not mesh well with the culture. That being said, through my travels around Europe I realized which cultures would mesh well with my personality. I found that southern European countries mostly those on the Mediterranean didn’t seem like the best places for me to live, Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands and Germany however, seemed much more appealing. I think one of my biggest takeaways from the semester is that sometimes things don’t live up to your expectations, but if you learn things along the way it was worthwhile.
One of the strangest things for me while abroad was that for the first time in my life, I was completely on my own. Any question or problem I faced was something I was going to have to figure out myself. I think the language barrier was one of the first challenges that I faced. I have studied Spanish for a long time, but being in Spain was the first time that I completely emersed in it. Madrid has a lot of people that speak English, but I decided that I would try to speak Spanish to everyone when possible. Often times listening to other people speak in a different language causes me to zone out their conversation, but for the first time, I found Spanish to be familiar. I didn’t realize the progress I had made in my Spanish until the end of the semester when I thought about all the things I used to struggle with. My main goal in studying abroad was to become fluent in Spanish and I feel like I have successfully accomplished that.
Since I was in high school, I have wanted to become fluent in Spanish. I knew that if I didn’t live somewhere that spoke it, I would have a lot of trouble achieving fluency. My decision to study in Spain was simple, they spoke Spanish and it was close to a lot of other countries that I wanted to visit. Now that I feel comfortable with Spanish, I am eager to explore South America and more of Central America. Knowing that I do not have to rely on English makes me feel much more cultured and I am happy that I have spent the time to understand the second most spoken language in the world. I am also inspired to learn more of some other languages such as French and German, because through my travels I realized how difficult it is to be somewhere and not understand anything that is going on around you. I am extremely grateful for the experience to study abroad and overwhelmingly happy that I went through with it.
Palacio de Cristal, Madrid
Park Güell, Barcelona