2015. It’s hard to believe that this week makes 3 years since I took my first international trip to Spain. I remember the hours I stalked my program website, googled Granada until I memorized every tourist attraction, and read 10 packing lists to get my suitcase just right. I also remember being super annoying to people back home at saying, “I’m gonna miss *insert campus event* because I’ll be in Spain or Morocco.” How basic of me.
Anyway, after 1,095 days to reflect on how study abroad has impacted my life, I’m breaking down the best and worst things about studying abroad in Spain. This also includes traveling through Europe and how to financially prepare for a semester in Europe. Plus, there are tips and general study abroad advice too!
The BEST thing that studying abroad gave me was my Spanish fluency. I’ve been reading and writing in Spanish since the 6th grade, but I didn’t start speaking consistently until a college conversation class. By the end of sophomore year, I decided that a semester abroad was necessary for me to learn beyond literature and phonetics. Though I still make mistakes, going to Granada for full-immersion helped build my confidence with the language. From schools to grocery stores to bars, living in a culture with your second language allows you to actively practice grammar rules from class, and increase vocabulary. You’re forced to use it!
Tip: Don’t choose a random study abroad program. Do your research. Go to your study abroad office and see their options. Or, find one that fits with you, your university’s and your major(s) and minor(s) requirements. If you are looking to study in Spain, I’ve got a post here on how to choose a study abroad program.
There are many host family horror stories out there, but mine has become my extended family. My host mom was kind, sassy, and made me feel at home. However, she made it clear she didn’t understand my pescetarian lifestyle and told me every day how I was missing out on that Spanish jamón (ham). We bonded over meals watching Pasapalabra and during siesta time watching telenovelas. I became good friends with my host sister-in-law too. I still talk to her regularly and visited her before I left Spain last year. She’s from Equatorial Guinea, thus she’s not Spanish, so we had interesting conversations about being black in Spain.
Tip: Unless you have an unwelcoming host family experience, I recommend not living in an apartment. With a host family, you learn so much more about the culture because you see the day-to-day life of the locals. My host mom also spoke no English, so it was perfect because we only spoke Spanish.
Fulbright and Volunteering
I am absolutely positive I wouldn’t have pursued a Fulbright Scholarship, if it wasn’t for studying abroad. That semester in Granada was my tester to live abroad and understand another country’s customs. The volunteering I did was the tester to work abroad and learn how to make friends in the workplace. There were new challenges when I returned to teach English, but the culture shock would have been much stronger during Fulbright without that semester.
Tip: Volunteering, for a cause you truly care about, is another great way to be immersed and learn about the culture. Depending on the program you can do it with or without college credits. It’ll look nice on your resume, and maybe even your Fulbright application, but that shouldn’t be the only reason. Be humble and genuine towards the people you serve. No one likes an obnoxious voluntourist.
Studying abroad birthed this blog, so of course it was a success of my adventures. It’s become a passion project that a few hundred people choose to read every week. I’ve learned a new host of skills since this blog’s inception and I love it. I don’t know how I would get through my non-traveling stints without it. Shoutout to y’all for supporting! I appreciate it.
Tip: Document your experience abroad. Whether it’s a blog, personal journal, Instagram, Tumblr, etc., just do it! It may seem time-consuming or trivial, but you’ll look back at the captions, paragraphs, and/or blog posts you wrote to reminisce. So many feels and memories!
The Travel Bug
Studying abroad opened my eyes to a whole new world. It wasn’t easy or glamourous 90% of the time, but every moment was worth it. I can’t imagine what I would be spending my money on had I not traveled. The limits I thought existed in my life were shattered and a new realm of possibilities was born. Cliche and true.
THE SCAMS (AND SOLUTIONS)
The Spanish Boyfriend
Everyone always talks about getting a boyfriend to learn Spanish....but it never happened for me, or anyone I knew while studying abroad. Also, the more time I spent in Spain, the more I didn’t understand this. The standard of foreign beauty, that many Spanish guys are attracted to, is the very blonde-hair, blue-eyed, pale skin look (also known as “Rubias,” meaning “Blondes” in Spanish). Other guys obsessed over skin color and/or hair. It felt like a fetish, so hard pass on that one. There’s also something shady about using someone just for their language, though I guess the relationship grows.
Solution: You don’t have to find a significant other to learn a new language. Yes, it would help because that person would be your own private intercambio (language exchange). However, you can make friends, live with a host family, do intercambios, and join other activities, to improve your language skills.
The Money and Broke-ness
I was told many times that Europe is cheaper than the U.S., however I didn’t fully understand how broke I would be during study abroad. In theory, I knew I wouldn’t be working or receiving free room and board as a Resident Advisor anymore. But y’all ,I was broker than broke even with all the money I saved up that semester beforehand. All those late-night securities and campus tours meant nothing when the British Pound diminished my $1 to $0.66. What a time.
Solution: Apply for study abroad scholarships to cover the costs such as Gilman, Boren, GoAbroad, Tortuga, etc. Depending on how much you want to travel, save up at least 6 months before you go. This money will be all you have, unless your family helps out. The more you save, the more you see.
Cheap Flights = Early
Those cheap flights do come with a price! Sleeping in airports, or waking up at the crack of dawn for a flight, has my back all messed up. No one ever explained to me that flights were inexpensive because the time of day was horribly early. I don’t see this changing since I’m a budget traveler. Maybe one day I’ll have the luxury of a flight after 12pm.
Solution: Pay more money or suck it up. The flight was cheap, but the experience is priceless. Just plan for a full-body massage when you go home.
The Travel Bug
Yep, a success and a scam! Studying abroad in Europe spoiled me with the cheap flights and accessibility to the whole continent. The reverse culture shock was 1000000% worse than normal culture shock. I powered through it playing my Spanish music, stalking my Time Hop, and plotting to leave again. I also returned thinking I could do “day trips” from where I went to school in Peoria, IL. HA! The joke was on me.
Tip: Don’t study abroad in Europe...just kidding. However, find ways to feed your wanderlust through reading books, listening to travel-focused podcasts, traveling domestically, blogging, whatever! Eventually your friends, who didn’t go abroad with you, will get tired of your “When I lived in Europe” stories.
A lot has changed since that 20-year old Sojourner (see what I did there?) left the Midwest for Spain in 2015. I was eager to finally use my Spanish and I expected to grow academically, but who knew that a semester abroad would lead me to travel blogging in 2018. Studying abroad has changed how I view travel. And with what I know now, I’m just getting started.
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I'd rather splurge on a good meal than a nice hotel, wine than water and plane tickets than club covers. Traveling and eating are my two favorite things, so follow my journey to see where I go and eat next! I'm just living my best life.