This story originally appeared as the feature article in Grove City College’s Office of International Education newsletter Going Global in November 2016. It’s longer than what I normally post, but it provides a nice overview of my year of studying abroad.
I was feeling disoriented in the Boston Airport. I had just said “Puedo ayudarle” to the woman trying to work the automatic paper towel dispenser in the bathroom. She looked at me confusedly. Wait! I thought. They speak English here!
“I can help you,” I repeated in English. I waved my hand in front of the motion sensor, and a paper towel appeared. A student who had been on my flight looked at me and smiled. We had both just flown from Spain to the US after a semester of studying abroad. We started talking about how strange it was to hear announcements in English and to be able to understand the conversations happening around us. We wished each other good luck with the rest of our journeys home. That was May 5th, 2016.
That was not the first time I had felt disoriented in the last year. That feeling started almost as soon as I left my college after finals in May 2015. My mom helped me pack everything up, and we drove away from campus at the end of my sophomore year. I would not set foot on campus for over a year.
I wanted to study abroad in Spain ever since I started studying Spanish in high school. Once I arrived at college, I decided to go to Spain in the spring of my junior year. My parents and I also started talking about a May intersession trip to the UK and France at the end of my sophomore year. This trip was the perfect opportunity for me to fulfill a class requirement, go to the UK and even France, and stick to the plan of studying in Spain for a semester.
Then, in the spring of my sophomore year, I found out that I was accepted to study at Ulster University in Northern Ireland through a scholarship program. I also found out that I was accepted to the US-UK Fulbright Commission’s Wales Summer Institute. Fulbright Summer Institutes happen all over the UK, and they are funded by the US-UK Fulbright Commission for students in their first and second years of college.
In spite of all these unfolding travel plans, the goal was not always to study abroad for a year. Many people see the end product and go, “Wow! A whole year! You’re so lucky.” Actually, luck had nothing to do with it; my family’s hard work and sacrifices were everything. My family made it possible for me to take classes outside of normal semesters to finish all my non-major class requirements by the end of my sophomore year. Because I did that, I could spend an entire year abroad without losing any opportunities to take classes of my choice during my senior year, for which I am incredibly grateful.
In May 2015, I boarded a plane to London for a travel course with students and professors from my college. It was a fantastic experience. We spent a few days in London and visited famous places such as Westminster Abbey and the British Museum. We also went to Paris, where we talked about Jean Baptiste-Lamarck and the study of natural history in France. We spent the last part of the trip in Nantes. One day, everyone visited a university in Nantes with which my college has a partnership. We had fascinating conversations with French students about natural history and about their lives in France. I flew home from France on my twentieth birthday.
After three weeks at home in late May and early June, I flew to the UK to begin six weeks in Wales with the US-UK Fulbright Commission with seven other American students from all over the country. For the first two weeks, we were based in Cardiff University in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. Then, we went to Bangor University in North Wales and Aberystwyth University in Mid-Wales for two weeks each. We learned about the history, language, culture, politics, and traditions of Wales. I wrote academic essays about the country’s diverse cultural identity. At the end of our time there, everyone presented their work to our professors and attended a fancy reception in our honor. The summer in Wales was unforgettable. I flew home on August 1st.
I spent five weeks at home, and I saw some of my college friends. My friends were wonderful about keeping in touch during all the time I was away, and they continued to be over the next year. On Labor Day, I flew to Belfast, Northern Ireland. The first two weeks there were filled with orientation activities for all the international students arriving at Ulster University. I lived on campus in a flat with Kim, an American; Lauren, a Canadian; and Yuan, who was from Beijing. I loved being an international student. In addition to my flatmates, I became friends with people from Sweden, Switzerland, France, and all over the US. In our free time, my friends and I explored Belfast, hiked, visited castles, explored St. George’s Market, listened to performances of traditional Irish music, and got to know the areas surrounding Belfast.
Three classes per semester is the norm in the UK. I had two classes on Tuesday and one class on Wednesday. I took marketing and communication classes that counted towards my major. I loved learning about familiar subject material from a Northern Irish perspective. Because I did most of my schoolwork on the days that I had class, I had plenty of free time to explore. On the long weekends, I explored Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland, visited Dublin and Cork with friends, and took a solo trip to Scotland to see Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Loch Lomond. My mom visited me in November, and we went to Dublin, Galway, the Aran Islands, and Belfast. On the last weekend of the semester, three of my friends and I went to Florence for four days. After we came back, I took my finals, and it was time to go. The semester was fantastic; I had become hooked on Irish music and on Northern Irish history. I did not want to go home in December.
Over the holidays, I moped. I was glad to see my family and I even got together with my
college friends again, but my heart was still in Ireland. I was not fun to live with, but my
gracious parents patiently listened to my stories and recognized that I was struggling. However, they made me realize that it was time to snap out of it and time to think
I landed in Seville in early January and met other students in my program, including my roommate Cassie, at the airport. Cassie and I didn’t know each other, but fortunately, we clicked right away. That’s one of the themes of my year abroad: the people made the experience. I met great people everywhere that I went. While I was in Seville, my friends Bethany and Greg from college were there. I was happy to see some familiar faces after starting over with new people every few months.
For the first two weeks in Seville, Cassie and I attended an intensive Spanish grammar class with the other students in our program. Then, the regular semester at the University of Seville started. I took classes in English about photography and the relationship between the US and the EU and classes in Spanish about the history of the Arab-Islamic world and Spanish phonetics. I loved my classes. Each one met twice a week, and there were no classes on Friday. On trips with ISA, my program provider, I saw Madrid, Toledo, Granada, and Córdoba. On trips with friends, I visited various towns in southern Spain and explored Seville.
Spain stretched me and challenged me in ways that I needed to grow. I took breaks when I needed to by traveling to other places. For a week at Easter, I went on a solo trip to Oxford, England, which was a bucket list destination. Over a different week-long break, I went to France to stay with my friend Pauline, whom I had met in Belfast. I also visited my college friend Suzanne, who was studying in Paris. Suzanne had already visited me in Seville, which was wonderful. Each time that I went back to Seville, I felt refreshed.
On our last night in Seville, my friends and I sat alongside the Guadalquivir River and talked about our semester. I thought about my year away. I was thankful for the adventure, but it was time to go home to my family. The next day, when I landed in Philadelphia, I ran with all of my suitcases to see my dad. Being at home over the summer was hard as I experienced the reality of reverse culture shock. I was confused and frustrated as I adapted to life back at home with my family, and I struggled to feel content where I was. My family was there for me through all of that. Long conversations with my mom helped me to reflect and deal with emotions and thoughts that I had not processed for an entire year. I will spend the rest of my life understanding how my time abroad has affected me. Through it all, my family and friends have given me tough love when I need it and a safe place to
vent. Even if I do not express it the right way all the time, I am truly thankful for my amazing support network.
Studying in Spain was difficult. Cassie and I shared a room in our host family’s apartment. My host mom and I got along, but I did not have warm, fuzzy feelings for her like some of my other friends who studied abroad felt for their host families. Speaking Spanish every day was difficult even though I had studied the language for six years. I had trouble understanding the southern Spanish accent. Cultural differences were more apparent than they had been in Northern Ireland and Wales, and I could not become accustomed to the enormous amounts of food that my host mom served. I do not know what I would have done without the support of my family and friends.
Maybe you connect with my struggles with culture shock and reverse culture shock. Maybe you didn’t know that studying abroad could be so awesome or so challenging. Maybe you are on the fence about studying abroad or encouraging someone else to study abroad and you’re wondering if all the planning and the sacrifices are worth it. Here’s my answer to you: absolutely. When you go abroad, the memories you make and the lessons you learn will be with you for the rest of your life.