Name: Shelby Naegele
Type of Project: Education Abroad
I went on a six-week study abroad program in Toledo, Spain. I took classes in La Fundacion Jose Ortega y Gasset – Gregorio Marañon located in what used to be a convent in the heart of the city. During the program, I lived with a host family which allowed me to interact with locals in the suburbs and then would take the public bus to attend my classes in the evenings.
This trip and living with a Spanish family really transformed my view on life. It made me re- evaluate the importance of family and community. It made me want to take more time to appreciate the people in my life that I truly care about. It also gave me a newfound appreciation for stillness and relaxing. I am a very scheduled person by nature. I am used to doing something at all times; I used to feel almost anxious if I was not actively staying busy. During this trip, however, I learned an appreciation for taking time to rest during your day. There is value and benefit to not having something to do at every hour. Also, I used to reserve the weekdays for basically just class, homework, and working. However, I no longer think that I should keep waiting until the weekend before I allow myself to do something fun. I now want to incorporate time for visiting family and friends or doing something enjoyable during the middle of the work-week because I would like to make my connections with people and myself more of a priority in my life.
This experience also gave me a huge increase in confidence and independence, as well as a desire to become a more global citizen. I had never traveled solo before, and I was quite intimidated at the thought of leaving the familiarity of my home country to go to a place where I knew no one and my language skills were below average. After realizing that I can navigate my way through a foreign country and overcome the problems that arise along the way, I felt really empowered as a person. Traveling abroad has made me more closely examine the way I view my own culture and sparked curiosity to learn about other cultures and visit more countries. Through the practice and use of my Spanish, I also became less self-conscious about my ability to communicate in another language. I’m a long way from perfect, but seeing how far I had come in my language abilities was encouraging and only gave me more motivation to seek out opportunities to further develop my Spanish in my hometown.
My participation in this program also gave me a greater appreciation for the arts. A large majority of my university classes in the United States are science based because I am a Molecular Genetics major. While in Toledo, however, I decided to take two art focused classes. One class taught about the history of architecture and the other was a class on famous Spanish painters. While I still love science, I was much more fascinated by these classes than I expected to be given the drastic switch in course topics. I became aware during my time in Toledo that when you actually understand art, it makes it a lot more interesting. I now know you can learn a lot about a country through its art and architecture. In this way, both of the classes were really helpful in increasing my understanding of the culture and history of not only the city I was staying in, but also Spain and Europe as a whole. I really enjoyed walking around the streets of various cities and being able to identify key characteristics in the architecture of the buildings, applying in real life what I had learned in class.
My relationship with my host mother was probably one of the biggest factors in my transformation. She immediately welcomed me into the family and included me in activities in a way that made me feel really integrated into the Spanish culture, at least of her family and neighborhood. Observing her relationships with both her family and her neighbors inspired me to make some changes in my own life. It was evident from watching her life that her family and friends are of the utmost priority to her. Almost every day we ate lunch together as a family and even her extended family would stop by the house multiple times a week. At night she spent time with her neighbors and friends in what they called the “fresco.” The “fresco” was the name for when all of the female neighbors would bring their lawn chairs down in the street by the pool and just sit spending time together and talking. This nightly reunion happened every single night I was there without fail starting around eleven. I really enjoyed the strong sense of community and support it created. It made me rethink the amount of time I devote during the week to connecting with my friends and family. Normally when I am stressed by my workload, I tend to seclude myself, but I’ve learned it can be beneficial to your well-being and productivity to take a break to relax with people that love you. After following my host mom around, I now want to set aside time during my week to be with my friends and family so that my life is a more accurate reflection of my priorities because people are what matter.
Planning a couple of weekend trips with my friends really transformed my confidence and taught me the very important traits of adaptability and problem solving. When I first arrived in Madrid off of the airplane I was excited but really nervous. I was flustered as I tried to get around the giant international airport to find the bus that was supposed to pick me up, worried that I would miss it. I had no idea what I was going to do if they left me behind. After traveling several weekends with a friend during the program, I gained a lot more faith in myself. I realized that I did not need to panic if something did not go according to plan because I could figure things out. Being able to be flexible can really be an advantage. Just before our trip to the northern coast of Spain, our transportation got cancelled. It did not mean the trip was over though, we just had to change our bus tickets and we ended up getting to stay a day longer. I really noticed how completely different my mentality was from the beginning of the trip when I spent a full day in Madrid completely alone the day before my return flight. I had a great time visiting parks, touring a museum, and eating dinner with people I had met that day at the hostel. The following morning as I navigated the subway and returned to the once stressful airport by myself now feeling at ease, I felt more empowered to be able to handle the inevitable challenges of life, especially in the United States where I would have the advantage of my native language.
My art classes with my professor were also very influential in the transformative nature of this experience. I had the same professor for both of my classes and her expertise and enthusiasm were phenomenal. The passion she had for teaching art and architecture was contagious and inspiring. She took us out of the classroom and around the streets of Toledo during multiple classes during my architecture class and graciously explained any question. It really increased the depth of my understanding to be able to actually see what we were talking about and practice as we were learning it. It made me notice little details in the city I was living in that I would have missed otherwise if I had not taken the class. There was a field trip to the Prado museum with the class over the master painters of Spain. I had never taken a formal art class before so during the admittedly few trips I had made to museums in the past, I think I missed out on a lot due to a lack of understanding. Now, I think knowledge and discussion develops appreciation and respect no matter what field you study. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip to the Prado because I had been studying the historical significance and the lives of the painters that led to the creation of the works. I think it was a lot more interesting to look at the paintings in context instead of just viewing the works as isolated arrangements of colors and shapes. Now that I know that I have more of an interest in art, I would like to try to visit some museums here in the United States.
This study abroad to Spain has been valuable to my life for many reasons. Firstly, this trip was the first time I had ever travelled solo. Having to plan, budget, and travel by myself really developed my confidence and independence which are important for becoming a contributing member of adult society. I think the exposure to new concepts and ways of living has made me a more well-rounded person and allowed me increase my ability to adapt. It made me realize that I am not dependent on other people to go travel and made me want to go explore more cultures and countries. Living in another culture has increased my openmindedness and made me more accepting of manners of living that are different than my own. There are so many people even within the United States who come from different backgrounds with their own customs and values. I believe it is important to be accepting and celebrate diversity because it is our differences that make us stronger. I ,also, gained a lot of empathy for people that have to learn English as a second language because language acquisition can be frustrating at times because it is hard to demonstrate all the facets of your personality if you do not have total command of the language used to convey it. The final reason that this trip was very valuable to me was the amount of practice it allowed me to have with my Spanish skills. I have wanted to be bilingual for a long time because I want to be able to communicate with a larger percentage of the world. This trip allowed me to be immersed in the Spanish language and live with someone who helped me practice every day in a patient, supportive manner. While I still probably would not say I am fluent, my Spanish have improved tremendously, and I am able to communicate pretty effectively. It has only inspired me to continue improving my Spanish and seek out opportunities to practice in my hometown.