College Study Abroad—If I Could Do It All Again

I get a lot of emails regarding study abroad and applying to be an auxiliar de conversación. Understandably so, as I talk a lot about Spain and my experiences there and how I feel now that I’m back home. People ask for recommendations of places to eat, drink, and see the sights. I’m definitely happy to (try to) help them out, but I often wish I could give them a list of general advice …without sounding stuck up. My biggest piece of advice is to put yourself out there and go study abroad! It truly is an experience that every college student should experience. Even a student working on an online bachelor degree should pack their computer and experience another country. With the world as connected as it is today, we can often forget the value of experiencing places in person. I feel a bit sorry for all the people who attend college online through an online college program or students attending smaller schools that don’t offer study abroad opportunities. Beyond this obvious piece of advice, I had difficulty coming up with my own recommendations of what to see and experience. And then I realized what I…

First day in Spain. Ever.

would like to tell Kaley (age twenty-one).

IMAG0203

  • Life in Spain is just that: life. It may be life in Europe, but you still have to do your laundry, write papers, and go grocery shopping.
  • You will walk. A lot. In the U.S., walking distances longer than to and from your car, especially in winter, is not common. This will change. You will walk everywhere—in the pouring rain, in dreadful heat, when you’re tired, when you’re not, when you are hung over, when you’ve got a caffeine withdrawal headache … you will walk.
  • You will make embarrassing mistakes. You will make mistakes that are not embarrassing as well. Live; learn; deal with it.
  • You will eat a lot of pork products. It’s really unavoidable.
  • You will feel frustrated and realize your Spanish has a long way to go. This is okay. This is normal. Embrace it, and realize that the only place to go is up. A note: you will not be fluent by the end of your study abroad journey unless you left for Spain with an absurdly high level. This too is just fine.
  • You will feel like a foreigner. Um, you area foreigner. Yes, you—all 5’11”, pale, freckled, American-faced you. You aren’t Spanish, and people might automatically switch to English when they hear your accent.
  • You will be homesick at times. You might just be more homesick than other people. This does not make you weak or lame or any of those other negative words that haunt you as you try to fall asleep. You may struggle at times—with the language, with the culture, with the schedule—but you will come out stronger on the other end.
  • You will feel disconnected from home. Life, like it or not, will go on without you. Your parents will buy new furniture. Your former roommate will bond with someone new. Your car may not be around when you get home. (Yes, this happened to me in 2009. Blame my brother.) You may get on Facebook and ask yourself, Who are these people?
  • You will worry about money. Yes, some people will travel every weekend—London, Rome, Paris, Greece, Morocco, Lisbon. Save your money. Travel where you have always dreamed of going. Remember that there is value in staying home, visiting your bar, walking the streets of your new (albeit temporary) home.
  • You will go home and feel nostalgic. When you return, whether or not you experience reverse culture shock, you will remember how you felt. You will remember the smell of incense in the cathedral, the taste of tinto de verano, the sight of Toledo across the river, the feel of your scratchy comforter as you fell asleep in a city older than your own country. You will listen to songs that make you cry, remembering what you had there, realizing you’ll never get that back. Be okay with this, this nostalgia of yours. It’s fine to miss it.

Life goes on, but you’ll remember.

Entry written because I’m totally nostalgic right now. Please forgive me.

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42 comments

  1. Point 1 is something not a lot of people get about long term travel in any of it’s forms (“why do you need a laundry machine? aren’t you on vacation!?) Oddly enough, underwear still requires washing outside the continental US ;-)

    Disconnected from home…yeah. There are children that exist on this planet that did not when I left. These children can WALK…one was baptized and I was placed as a “god uncle” over them. Now, when I see pictures of her, I totally get what my aunts meant when they saw me and said “how did you get so BIG?”

      1. I pushed the magic wordpress button and “poof” there you were.

        don’t ask me how. I sail boats. My wife showed me the magic wordpress bloggy thingy. I list it as magic and move forward happy in my ignorance ;-)

          1. The “magic” wordpress button he’s talking about is the “read blogs” button on the wordpress.com home page. If you’re subscribed to anyone else’s blog they show up first, or you can search for blog posts by topic. It’s a pretty cool way to find something new to read! If you need more info about it, just ask :)

            ps – I’m Greg’s wife… The one who told him about the “magic” button…

  2. Very, very true! I would have told my 20-year-old self in Madrid that the best way to beat homesickness is to keep busy and that sitting in front of your computer talking to people from home can just make it worse (generally). I am still so nostalgic for Spain, even here in PR!!

  3. um, my parents sold the car that was to be willed to me, a 1964 mustang convertible, while I was studying abroad. I may never forgive them. Also, I tell a 19-year-old me that I can do what I want with ym llife, simply because 26-year-old me is living in España.

  4. Here’s one to add to the list: you will be forever changed.

    Anyway, I feel you on the nostalgia thing. I bathe in it regularly, haha.

    I think one of the things I miss the most about studying/living abroad is learning SO much at one time because everything is different or new. It inspires one to make big changes, to be DIFFERENT because everything else is so different. Being back in the United States, it’s easy to fall back into old patterns and to just “go with the flow” or the “status quo” because everything is so easy. So one thing I am trying to do when I feel nostalgic is do the same things I was doing while abroad (like drinking lots of wine or walking more, haha. Maybe for you that would be eating lots of ham!).

    I am finding that maybe I don’t miss the place so much as I miss how I felt there (and the people I was with) — so I am trying to recreate that in my life here at home.

    Anyway, great entry, as always :)

  5. No advice to add, but 10 years later I still have the best memories of my study abroad experience (and visit about once a year). And as Erika said, I try to recreate the best aspects of my study abroad experience in my life back in the States. (PS I found your blog through Rea’s Not So Spanish blog, and I love it!)

      1. Hahaha. I don’t know, honestly! I get into these moods where I want to write/have something to say and I write it all down, no matter where I am and then type it up here later.

  6. I’m leaving for my first semester abroad – ever – in Spain on February 12 – ahhh! I’m so glad you posted this, and will definitely keep these things in mind this semester.. especially the one about the car.

  7. Great advice. There are definitely some things I wish I could tell study abroad me as well. Especially after having lived there as an assistant for two years. Being an assistant was such a different experience than studying abroad! My school coddled me a lot while I was studying, and I didn’t even realize it. I also completely agree with “you will worry about money.” I traveled to a bunch of different places as a student, and I really wish I had lived in Paris more and enjoyed just being there instead of going off to all those other places. Luckily I went back to France and did spend more time in my honorary home town. Anyway, enough about me! I hope many future study abroad students will read this.

    1. Yes, being a language assistant is quite a different experience than study abroad. I think “coddled” is definitely an appropriate word for what happens for/to the majority of study abroad students, even if they go to the host country with the best intentions–it’s just really difficult to truly branch out and make local friends.

      Thanks for your sweet comment.

  8. Solid advice. I especially like your point about money & travel. I’m still reminding myself of that now—recently I found myself feeling a little bit of “oh my god I’m in Europe I need to travel EVERYWHERE” syndrome; then I remembered, there’s something to be said for having a few bucks in my savings account. And something to be said for taking advantage of where I already am.

  9. Thanks for the effort and sincerity, i also came to spain in my sarly 20’s, left for 10 years, and then returned in the year 2000 and have been here since!

  10. Kaley, this blog update literally made me tear up. Why do you have such a wonderful way with words?! The times I feel frustrated living here in Spain, the moments I want to give up, and think situations are the end of the world, I am going to back and read that last paragraph. The nostalgia (even when I am home visiting for holidays) in America is very real, and I hope that I never forget my scratchy comforter.

    Do you think you will move back to Spain in the future?

  11. I love how, even though your not living in Spain (right now), you always have endless posts to write. And I always enjoy reading your entries. I need to make more time to write.

    I can relate to the list. Thanks. The one that really hits me is: “You may not be fluent by the time you leave.” It’s good for me to think about and take in. I have 5 more months as an auxilar and as much as I wish and hope and want to stomp my feet, fluency may not be in the cards for me by May. And that’s ok.
    Yes to the making mistakes- I’m finally feeling better about speaking and not giving a s*** if I make a mistake. Freeing.

  12. Great post… this definitely touches on a lot of what I’m going through here right now. Especially “You will feel frustrated and realize your Spanish has a long way to go”. It’s so hard to see how much you’ve improved when there is still so much to learn… I’m trying to have more realistic expectations for myself! I can’t even imagine what it will be like going home… there are plenty of things and people I miss from home, but I can see myself feeling just as nostalgic as you are.

  13. I miss Spain all the time, and I live with a Spaniard in the States! :) I, too, especially miss the feeling of being overly stimulated mentally. I learned so much so fast in Spain; returning to the US feels too easy at times. Although like you, Kaley, I do appreciate being able to understand every thing around me.

  14. So totally 100% true!
    Study abroad was the best life decision I ever made! I loved it so much the first time I did it a second!: Then I became an Auxiliar! I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone I talk to! Such an impact on my life!

    And the list is sooo true too! You get homesick but then you remember what a great opportunity it all is and the experience you gain from it all is uncomparable, and you’ll go home and miss it all.

  15. I know I commented before but I keep thinking about this post and being fluent. When I set off to Spain, I thought 9 months was more than sufficient to be fluent but I’ve come to realize I’ll need more time and more adventures such as this. (Maybe, If I wasn’t teaching English and shut myself off from English speakers, it would be possible but…)

    Practice makes perfect. I’ve come more to terms with not being fluent when I get back in a plane headed for US of A but it’s taken several weeks to get used to the idea. However, my Spanish is a LOT better than when I arrived and “should” only get better till I leave. poco a poco!

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