For my STEP project, I traveled on an Education Abroad trip to Valencia, Spain through International Studies Abroad (ISA) in order to study Spanish at La Universitat de Valencia. I was able to take two classes, Spanish Cinema and Spanish Culture: History, Art, and Spanish Tradition. My program granted me the opportunity to live in the home of a Valencian family and travel throughout Spain on various historical and cultural excursions.
My admiration for beauty and creativity in the world grew significantly while I was in Spain. I did not realize how little I knew about Spanish art or traditions before travelling abroad, but once in Spain it was very clear that I had much to learn. Almost immediately after I met with my program group, we toured multiple palaces and art museums in Madrid. These activities instilled a perspective of curiosity in me from the very beginning of my time abroad. I took notice of many lovely elements while touring each place: the architectural styles of buildings, the colors used in paintings and sculptures, the attention to detail in baroque style buildings, the unique people visiting the same sites as my program group, and the mixture of languages spoken in each location. I believe that because I approached my travels in Spain with the mindset of a student, I continually put effort into discovering, admiring, and inquiring. My natural state was a state of active appreciation of all that I saw. My increased admiration for beauty and creativity carried over from appreciation of the fine arts to everyday objects and ordinary things.
Although I’ve enjoyed socializing and knowing people for all my life, I feel that after my study abroad experience I have grown in my ability to notice small, beautiful details during my interactions with others. This has helped me absorb more from ordinary occurrences in life. Before my classes abroad, I had not been knowledgeable about the various languages, accents, or communities in Spain. I had assumed that since Spain is a smaller country than the United States there would not be so many regional differences between the people, languages, accents, foods, and sports as there are in the US. My professors explained some main differences in the regions and I quickly learned to listen closely to people as they spoke to hear their pronunciation, word choice, and the pace of their sentences in order to determine which Spanish community they were from. By taking note of these small details, I developed a greater appreciation for the simple, beautiful aspects of my everyday interactions with others and the world around me. I picked up an ear for noticing variations in the way people speak, which has helped me appreciate the different ways Americans speak as well as the way communication works in general.
When experiencing something new, my first instinct is to absorb all that is around me and admire what I see. My study abroad program in Spain had a breathtaking beginning. My classmates and I toured the art museums Reina Sofía and Del Prado in Madrid on the second day of our program, which was an incredible introduction to the history, art, and culture in Spain. I had never seen any world class monuments or museums before travelling abroad, which made these museums so much more overwhelming. I was able not only to see the elegance and mysteriousness in Goya’s work, the complex relationships in Velazquez’s work, and the suffering and emotion in the work of El Greco but also experience the despair, warmth, and conflict of their paintings. I was also able to enjoy the beauty of La Sagrada Familia and Park Guell in Barcelona and La Catedral de Santa Maria in Toledo. I felt myself enter a vulnerable and malleable state in these places. The exaggerated details and emotions in the painting in Reina Sofia and Del Prado lead me to look for similar details in the people that I interact with. The visible tension between many of the figures in Goya’s work has allowed me to notice the complexities in relationships in my own life, which has been quite thought provoking. Our tour of La Sagrada Familia made a great impression on me. The cathedral has been described as a forest inside of a church by the architect Antoni Gaudi himself, which is a very accurate way to describe its structure. The architecture of the cathedral highlighted the stability of trees, the influence of natural light, and the wonder of colors. All of the monuments and museums I saw conditioned me to appreciate the relationships, expressions, and details of the people and structures around me.
My appreciation for relationships continued to develop through the members of my Spanish host family. It was eye opening to see the value they placed in having frequent family-time. Voices could always be heard in my family’s apartment, whether it be animated bickering between my host siblings or civil debates about education and politics. I greatly enjoyed seeing a family that was open and willing to share their most personal opinions with me. It was a beautiful thing to live in the midst of a supportive and loving family. The honesty and authenticity they have is not modelled so well in my own biological family. Although I do feel very loved by my parents and siblings, there are some aspects of openness that we lack as a family unit. Exposure to their genuinely close knit family helps me to see what it would look like for a family to share their lives openly with one another, and this gives me hope for the relationships of my future family.
I also had various interactions with Spaniards not in my host family which lead me to appreciate the intricacies of their language and relationships. Before arriving in Spain, I was very dubious of my ability to speak to Spaniards. I was unsure of my verbal, comprehensive, and conversational skills. I was also rather doubtful that there would be any Spaniards interested in talking with me about my life and experiences in Spain. Thankfully, my expectations did not match reality. I was met by patient and understanding people who gently corrected my grammar mistakes and readily taught me new words. I was so happy about this because I was able to grow my speaking skills, develop friendships, and learn about Spain all at the same time. I was often asked about where I learned to speak Spanish because I spoke with an unfamiliar accent. Although this confused me at first, I soon learned that there are many different way to speak Castilian Spanish. It delighted me to discover new things about the Spanish language and it helped me to see how many different ways people are able to communicate with one another.
To summarize the transformation I experienced during my STEP project, I developed my ability to recognize the beauty and significance of interactions with others. I think this matters a lot to my academic, personal, and professional goals as it has opened my mind and heart to the allure of this life. Academically, I believe my relationships with classmates will be able to flourish even more as I have grown in my ability to relate with others and communicate what I wish to express. I already valued relationships very much so this transformation has helped me to enjoy my existing friendships even more and look forward to future relationships. Personally, I feel as though I discovered the capability of my heart to experience love and appreciation for others. This sounds like a cliche, but to me it is very important to focus my mind on helping other people rather than being absorbed in my own needs. Professionally, I think that I will be able to apply the Spanish that I learned as well as the communication skills that I developed in Spain in order to better interact with patients in the future. Much of my career as a genetic counselor will involve informing patients about their genetic conditions and listening to their concerns about their diagnoses. I am very thankful that my STEP experience taught me to see the significance of the ordinary interactions I have in my life.