I decided to study abroad because I knew that it would vastly improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and culture much more than in a normal classroom setting in the United States. I really wanted to experience anything and everything Spanish related, from the language, to the people, to the food! I was also able to transfer 13 credits back to my home university that went towards my degree, helping me to graduate on time. In my mind as well, I had nothing to lose. The cost of studying abroad was the same as the cost of tuition in my home university, and all of my scholarships transferred, so it was easy!
I studied abroad in Zaragoza, Spain, where I was enrolled in Spanish Intensive classes at the Centro de Español como Lengua Extranjera (Center of Spanish as a Foreign Language). Classes were Monday through Friday from 9am to 2pm, with a half hour break in the middle. I was the only male in my class and one of 2 Americans; the girls were either Chinese or Ghanese. In class, we learned everything from grammar, to Spanish superstitions, to idiomatic expressions. It was particularly interesting because oftentimes in class, we would end up comparing cultural differences (American vs Spanish vs Chinese vs Ghanese). It made every class interesting! While I lived in Spain, I stayed with a Spanish host family. They knew very little English and I was their first host student. It was a bit awkward at first, especially since they weren't sure how to deal with my physical disability. Over time though, I got to know my host mom, sister and their friends extremely well. I remember my host mom once telling me, I'm going to treat you like I would want you to treat my daughter if she stayed with you in America. I remember after dinner one night, my mom went into the living room, turned on the TV and exclaimed, Tyler! Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is on! Let's watch it together! I think that was our first real bonding moment. They truly cared about me. Even when I traveled around Europe with friends, they'd text me to make sure I was okay. My mom was really worried when I decided to take a trip around Europe completely alone during Semana Santa (Spanish Easter holiday). I went from Spain, to England, to France, to Switzerland, back to France and then back into Spain. She was overjoyed when I got back to our house safe and sound, and she was always happy to hear about my adventures! I still keep in touch with her, and I miss her very much!
I was incredibly lucky in my college because all of my tuition and such was covered through scholarships, and they were all able to be transferred to pay for my semester abroad. However, there were still some fees that had to be paid (rent to my host family, plane tickets, etc). A few months before going abroad, I was honored to receive the prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, funded through the U.S. Department of State. I was awarded $2,000, thanks to that scholarship. In return, I completed a blog as a Follow-on Service Project to the Gilman program.
Culture shock was a big thing for me. I knew that there would be things I'd experience abroad that I hadn't before while in the U.S., but there were things from the U.S. that I missed because I didn't realize they wouldn't be in another country (or not as easy to access), especially when it came to food. Peanut butter was replaced by Nutella. Coca Cola tasted less sweet. Cheeses I'd never heard of were put on sandwiches. Meal times were so much later (dinner in Spain isn't served until around 10 at night). In general, I think just being aware of a country's cultural differences, big or small, can help tremendously during the initial stages of being abroad.
Even in the States, I stand out in a crowd because of my physical disability (crutches are easy to spot). I also have blonde hair, which is a definite sign of a foreigner in Spain, as most Spaniards have dark hair. However, even though I had a disability and they knew I was a foreigner, I was never once discriminated against. In fact, the Spanish were always welcoming and willing to help me with anything. One day when I was walking from my house to class, I slipped and fell into the street. A Spanish couple saw me and immediately ran over to me, picked me up, made sure I was okay, went to their car to get me a Band-aid and then offered me a ride to wherever I was going. They had no idea who I was, yet they helped me and made sure I was okay. It was in that moment that I realized that not everyone is going to judge you or hate you because you're different. There are still people who will help, whether you be from their country or not.
Academically, I learned a ton about the Spanish language and culture while abroad. My professors remarked after I returned to my home university how much my speaking abilities had improved. In addition, I feel that I also learned a lot about the English and French cultures as well, from spending a few days in England and France.
Personally, I feel that studying abroad helped me to think on my feet and taught me how to adapt quickly to unfamiliar situations. I gained a more worldwide perspective and I understand now that there is so much more to the world than just America, and that just because something is different, does not mean that it's wrong or bad.
I think my favorite moment of being abroad was the last trip that I took outside of Zaragoza. My host family, friends, and I went to Loarre Castle in Huesca, Spain for a day. We toured the castle and learned a little history. Afterwards, we talked and sang songs, and had a picnic outside since it was a beautiful day!
I'm not a go out kind of guy, but I did go out occasionally with friends. Spanish nightlife starts around 10pm and doesn't end until around 5 or 6 in the morning. Kids will often go to several bars throughout the night, but they won't necessarily get drunk. Europeans more so drink as a social event, very casually, and pace themselves so they can enjoy themselves all night. I also highly recommend going to a Flamenco show if possible while in Spain.
My ultimate goal is to become a Spanish Interpreter and my time spent in Spain has proven invaluable in achieving that goal. I also feel that my time abroad has helped me to think more about why people are different and helped me to overcome the initial shyness that comes with meeting someone new and speaking to someone in a foreign language.
I would definitely recommend Zaragoza. It may not be a very scenic city, for example, like Grenada, but the people are also very kind and open and it's a great place to learn the language. In addition, it's right by an airport, which is incredibly convenient for traveling, and there's a tram system throughout most of the city, making getting around extremely easy.
If you can go abroad, do it. I's a truly life changing event and any time spent abroad is time well spent. Don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. Take risks and try new things. For a lot of people, studying abroad is the only chance they have of ever going abroad, so take full advantage of everything that being abroad has to offer.
Check out my Gilman Study Abroad Blog! https://gilmanprogram.wordpress.com/category/tyler-in-spain/