What am I doing here?
I arrived in Madrid and walked an eternity through an empty airport. How was it real that I had fallen asleep high above the Atlantic ocean, and woken up here? My mouth was dry, my back ached despite my neck pillow, and I was utterly alone. I hadn’t spoken to another human person in hours, and I was by myself in a country I’d only been to once before. But this time I was staying for four months.
When I decided to apply to study abroad my first semester of sophomore year of college, the idea was thrilling and exciting. Traveling, taking pictures, meeting new people, partying, exploring, hiking, biking, eating new foods… paradise. As the days of summer evaporated before my eyes I only felt the same sense of dread I felt before I left for college. The fear of the unknown. I tend to throw myself into these types of situations. It’s not so much of me stepping out of my comfort zone. Instead, I leave my comfort zone like skydiving: all at once and without completely thinking it through.
It’s been almost a month since I’ve been here in Alicante. And for the most part, I’m happy with how this is turning out. I have my first big trip planned for this weekend and I’m nervous and excited. It still feels like I shouldn’t be allowed to do these types of things without a parent or chaperone, and I’m wondering how long I will continue to feel this way. But enough about me. As I sit here in my host family’s house, in the little yellow room that they’ve designated for me, I want to talk about studying abroad, and why it exists in the first place.
Who do we think we are?
When I am able to get out of my own head and experiences, I think about how this whole study abroad thing looks from the opposite side. I suppose that it is the same for any place with a lot of tourism. You ask, “Why would anyone want to come here?” You’ve seen the same sights your whole life, what’s so exciting that some American college student would choose to leave their friends and families for a year and live… here?
I don’t think that there are that many reasons to study abroad. You are either curious about the world outside of what you know, or you’re not. Ok that’s probably not fair to say. There’s definitely a range of motivations when it comes to leaving home. A change of scenery, new opportunities, an internship, curiosity, the Instagram aesthetic. I refuse to say how I feel about anyone’s motivation. But I will say that I hope at the end you do come back a changed person. People make fun of kids who come back from studying abroad and say “abroad changed me”. But why? It should. If you came home the same person you left, what was the point?
The purpose of this blog has been to inform, to encourage young people to learn more about the world around them and to care what happens to it and in it. So this opportunity is one where I can take my own advice. How can I use my time to expand my worldview? I’m not quite sure. But I have to try.
On the one hand, I chose the wrong place to go to expand my worldview. Spain is a thoroughly modern, wealthy, mostly white country. Surrounded by other modern, wealthy, mostly white countries. Sounds like home. But in that as well I’ve discovered things by asking, “why?”
There are some things I notice along the tram ride to school that I still don’t quite understand. Graffiti along the sides of walls and buildings that I’m not sure if it’s anti-immigrant and anti-muslim or not. I can’t understand it because as much as I try, I am not fluent in Spanish. But there are clues everywhere that tell me that things are bubbling uder the surface. And I know enough about recent events and immigration to know that things are changing here. And if living in the US has taught me anything, it’s that no matter what, people are going to be resistant to those who seem different.
I know that this seems off topic for my”why study abroad?” article, but I promise, there’s a point to this. We have to be so diligent when we look at other places, and I don’t mean in a critical way. Studying abroad has the illusion of a beautiful, carefree, enlightening experience. And so far, it has been. But we, as students, travelers, Americans, others, have to remember that we’re stepping into someone else’s world. Yes, the beaches are beautiful. And that was a CASTLE. But it’s one thing to appreciate a place and its beauty and its people and another to fetishize it.
This may seem more applicable to other locations where it looks more obvious: “third world” countries that look so different from where we come from, where poverty is visible without looking too hard. But it truly is the same. Even traveling within US has led me to the same conclusions. You can go somewhere, be a tourist, enjoy it. But don’t forget where you are and who calls that place home. Don’t make too many comparisons. It’s different. Accept that. Don’t be afraid to make yourself knowledgeable about the history and problems that place is facing. Empathy and understanding goes a long way, whereas ignorance will only cause harm and hurt even if it wasn’t intended. This advice goes out to my very own self. I should listen to me more.
The American Student Abroad Experience could, at this point, be packaged and sold. 3 x trip to A European City. 20 x fancy meals. 5 x “authentic cultural experiences”. 4 x friends you meet on your program. 4 x engaging classes with professors. 1 x food festival. 1 x Oktoberfest. 3 x new pairs of shoes. Customize your trip! Add: 1 x friendship with a local student.
You get the point. Studying abroad is no longer unique. It is not backpacking for a year through Europe and trying to not run out of money. And I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing. It seems more accessible than ever before, with so many universities having their own programs or having connections with other programs. It’s very interesting. So how do I make my experience something more than a package deal?
That was a rhetorical question. I don’t know.
Vacations and study abroad experiences alike thrive on the pursuit of things that are “authentic”- cuisine, cultural experiences. Our world now thrives on commercializing these things, and there’s little we can do about it.
I don’t think it’s important to avoid these things, but be mindful of why you are doing them. Living with a host family has helped to bridge the gap in my mind about people from different places. People are the same everywhere. You may speak a different language but many of the same the things that are funny at home are funny here too. And when I first introduced myself to my host family and accidentally announced that I was 29 years old instead of 19, they cracked up just like my own family would.
So that’s a lot of things to think about. For me to think about while I’m here. Appreciating but not just taking snaps of the pretty stuff. Getting to know the people and building relationships. Keeping in mind that while I get to leave at the end of four months, everything else stays here, just as it was before me. And it’s not always picture perfect. I’ve been here a month and I’ve had at least five REALLY bad days. But this is me, abroad. In a different place that’s slowly feeling a little bit like home, learning my way around a city that nobody in my family has ever laid eyes on, climbing up castles and peering into pirate dungeons and the oldest and most ancient places I have ever seen. Being curious and willing to learn as much as I can. Let’s see how this goes.