Spain on the Brain: Reflecting on my Semester Abroad

Josie Schuman, Op/Ed Editor

Saying goodbye was more difficult than I anticipated. We stood at the entrance to airport security. Naturally my mom was fine, but my dad’s eyes were welling up with tears. My younger sister and I did the whole “We love each other so much, but we’re too cool to say it” bit. My boyfriend gave me a big hug and muttered the words, “I’ll see you soon.” It’s always the simple words that get you. Tears in my eyes, I waddled over to security, off balance because of my gigantic travelling bookbag, and gave everyone one last glance to say goodbye.

My flight was cancelled thanks to the government shutdown. After waiting in line with other frantic people, I found another flight and got settled at my new gate. I chowed down on my routine airport meal of Auntie Anne’s cinnamon sugar pretzel nuggets and lemonade before we started to board. I got comfortable for the long, seven-hour flight ahead. It wasn’t until about an hour into the plane ride that I thought to myself, “What the heck did I get myself into?”

Six hours later and boom! I was in Spain. After a one-hour bus ride, I arrived in Tarragona, my home away from home for the next five months. I headed into my residence hall to be greeted by … well, no one. No one was there. I had no idea where to go or what to do. I thought about flagging down one of the few students passing by me, but I instantly forgot all my Spanish.

Thank God for Rosa. One of the cleaning women saw me sitting in the lobby of this random building and took me under her wing. If I had ventured about 25 feet outside, I would have realized that I was just in the wrong building, the equivalent of going to Pacelli instead of Dolan. 

Rosa brought me to the right place and introduced me to the head of the residence hall, which was my first battle with the language barrier. We communicated well enough, and I eventually got the keys to my room. I headed upstairs to my new home, set my stuff down and began the first day of the adventure of a lifetime. 

Studying abroad instilled a newfound confidence in me. I know you’ve probably already rolled your eyes, but hear me out. It was the first time I was ever really away from home, as my home is only a 30-minute drive from JCU. While living in Spain, I learned how to rely on myself. In addition to learning some important practical skills, such as navigating public transportation and international banking, I also learned how to be independent. I had to deal with some tricky situations without Mom and Dad backing me up. 

I never thought that I could live on my own for five months, let alone in a different country. But, when I was forced to, I found a way. The “baptism by fire” experience of studying abroad tested my limits and showed me that I’m stronger than I thought. Now, whenever I doubt myself, I refer to my study abroad experience as motivation.

I met people from all over the world, and they became some of best friends. It was incredible to sit around the dinner table next to people from Spain, Algeria, Syria, Italy and Slovakia. It was a profound experience for me. While adapting to being greeted with two kisses took some time, I learned how relationships can transcend, and even flourish, because of cultural differences. These differences not only opened my eyes to various contrasting cultural norms but also to problematic standards in my own culture.

With the help of my Syrian friend, I was able to reflect on my own understanding of money. After going out for lunch together, he picked up the tab. I was shocked and told him we should divide up the cost. Stunned by this request, he explained to me that people in his culture maintain a generous perspective on money, especially regarding friends and family. He said that the money always balances out and that I could treat next time. 

This mindset is countercultural to the understanding that many Americans have about finances, especially broke college students like us who send Venmo requests for $1.37 — myself included. After learning more about the Syrian perspective on money, I have tried to be more generous in my approach with my family and friends.

Studying abroad also taught me how to travel. I had a set plan when I arrived in Spain: See everything. I quickly found out that I didn’t have enough time, or money for that matter, to accomplish this goal. Spending one day in a city just to say I’ve been there is not worth it. 

After rushing through my first two trips, I tried to take a more holistic approach to traveling, rather than treating landmarks as items on my to-do list. Will I remember that one cathedral? Probably not. Even if it’s a hallmark of the city, will I truly appreciate it if I’m rushing because I only have an hour before my flight leaves? 

What I really remember are the unique experiences I had with the people I was with. I remember randomly wandering into a karaoke bar in Amsterdam. I remember aimlessly exploring the streets of Venice, stopping at every gelato shop that we saw. I remember spending the whole day at the beach, even though we had timed tickets for a museum. 

I believe in quality over quantity in these situations. It’s not about how much you do while traveling, but rather the rich experiences that you have exploring a new place. 

Lastly, and most importantly, studying abroad taught me how to live. It sounds dramatic, I know, but I mean it. I lived more in those five months that I spent in Spain than I have in my whole life.  I figured out how to spend my time wisely. Each day was an opportunity to meet someone new, taste something different or visit somewhere beautiful. 

I thought this mindset was simply a fantastical “study abroad” mentality, but I’ve realized that there’s no reason I can’t live like this every day. Studying abroad helped me to see my life with fresh eyes, which is something that I desperately needed. Sure, I’m not going to hop on a plane to Portugal tomorrow, but my friends and I can plan to try that new restaurant, see that movie or finally go axe-throwing. 

Reflecting on my study abroad experience, I learned that Spain Josie is way more fun than Ohio Josie, but I also learned that this does not have to be reality. I have been trying to bring the same sense of adventure, passion and excitement that I had in Spain to my everyday life, and I can honestly say that it has made all the difference. 

So, there it is. That’s my spiel. You can disregard me as one of those crazy “study abroad kids,” but I truly believe that any experience that pops the little bubble of your world is an experience worth having, whether that’s an entire semester in another country or an afternoon in a different city.