Some people are really well-suited to the study abroad experience.
I am absolutely not one of those people. But after five months of perpetual angustia, I think I’m finally okay with this. Granted, I’m peacing out in less than a week, and the light at the end of the tunnel is doing wonders for my mood. The terrifying prospect of final exams worth up to 65% of my grades, however, is not.
According to the dozens of study abroad blogs that I binge-read before embarking on this magical journey, the last post is a time for reflection. As a clearly well-grounded individual, however, I don’t need to look at my semester in retrospect very long to know that I could’ve done some things a little differently. Arguably better. If you’re reading this and you have not yet survived a semester abroad, you won’t have that luxury, so because I care about your health and well-being so much (you’re welcome), here are a few things you should know before you go to Spain thinking it’ll play out anything like Cheetah Girls 2:
- Everyone will tell you not to take a 9 a.m., but if it’s an interesting topic and you can get yourself to the metro by 7:30, it’s really not that bad.
- Carmencita Bar has brunch on the weekends with 1€ mimosas and also French toast.
- Quizlet is the best study app, don’t even bother with the other ones.
- Your host mother might be a Francoist. 😀 This is a fun little detail that you won’t find out until after you’re in way too deep. You’ll be sitting at home, eating dinner, pretending to understand Spain’s obsession with “tortilla española,” when your host mom will look up from the news and casually mention (rant?) that she believes life was better (and would be better today) under the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, whose regime is responsible for the mass murder of an estimated 400,000 people. No biggie! The housing director will reassure you that the older generation tends to be more “conservadora” and that it’s really quite normal to glorify the incarceration of 367,000 to 500,000 Spanish Republican loyalists in concentration camps. So just prepare for that possibility! It’s not going to be on your host’s info sheet. They save it as a surprise for later.
- Pack enough American deodorant to get you through the semester. Spanish deodorant is garbage. It does nothing. If anything, it makes you sweatier because the liquid roll-on method just feels like you’re moisturizing your armpits.
- Oh, and you might not love Spain. Sometimes you might not even like it.
That last one’s the sinker. Junior Year Abroad is often lauded as the cornerstone experience of an undergrad career. The best half-year of your life. The opportunity of a lifetime. While I can’t possibly express how grateful I am that Vassar gives us the chance and means to do this program, study abroad has obviously not been my most perfect experience. If you’re planning on doing JYA, it might not be yours either.
And that is okay.
It’s no secret that learning a foreign language is the only reason I did JYA. If I were going to spend the semester being moody and antisocial in English, I might as well have done that at Vassar. Yes, Spanish is truly responsible for all that has befallen me these five months, so it better have been worth it. Am I fluent now? Absolutely not. Understanding a full lecture might lull me into a false sense of security, but all it takes is one stammering exchange with a cashier to deflate my ego. Am I significantly less terrible at it? Actually, yeah. I went into this thing with only two and half years of Spanish under my belt. I could barely say hi to my professors outside of class and now I’m having actual conversations with actual Spaniards. Admittedly, these conversations ain’t too deep, but still, it’s something.
Learning a foreign language feels a little like being an infant trapped in an adult body (probably the opposite of whatever Bebé Jefazo is supposed to be about). You look like you should know how to function in this adult world, but you do not. You are a baby. Instead of communicating with articulated thoughts, you just kind of throw words together and make noises and cry, while everyone secretly hates you for being so helpless. It’s frustrating and exhausting and you feel stupid almost 90% of the time, but there’s no escape because you’re immersed in it. For five months anyway.
I got through this semester knowing I would be going back to the U.S., where I exclusively speak English (and also whatever language food service workers are forced to use with customers). Imagine permanently living somewhere outside of your native language. Now imagine native speakers of this foreign language actively being hostile to you for communicating with them.
This is too often a reality for the estimated 60 million people in the U.S. whose primary language is something other than English. The United States has no official language. (Nope, it really doesn’t. You can look it up.) And yet, “broken” English is still used as a cheap (usually racist) gag in sit-coms and seen as a mark of lower intelligence. Um, sorry, how many of y’all laughing along with those jokes are bilingual?
Maybe instead of clinging to the repressive Catch-22 of “everyone learn English, but don’t practice it in public until you’re completely fluent,” we should be pushing for better foreign language programs in elementary schools. If I’d started learning Spanish at six or seven, a recommended age to take advantage of the young brain’s exceptional neuroplasticity, I’d be pretty baller at it by now. But no. I started at 18, with a brain that’s less like plastic and more like concrete. The U.S. Department of Education reports that from 1997 to 2008, “[foreign language i]nstruction in public elementary schools dropped from 24 percent to 15 percent, with rural districts hit the hardest” (Forbes.com, “America’s Foreign Language Deficit,” 08.27.12). It’s incredibly common in Europe to speak multiple languages because it’s already built into their education systems. If the U.S. fails to prioritize foreign language studies in its schools, we’ll only continue to fall behind internationally, while simultaneously encouraging “English-only” initiatives that further divide us from a global perspective.
Regardless, while it certainly wouldn’t hurt, you don’t need to spend almost half a year abroad to learn the basic human concept of empathy. Despite what you’ve seen on Eat, Pray, Love, traveling is not a prerequisite in expanding your worldview. (We do have internet access, people.) One of the best pieces of evidence I have for this is that my favorite parts of Spain had been less than 100 miles away from me for my entire college career, I just didn’t know they were there. Getting to know the Wesleyan students (…and the Vassar students who I’d inexplicably never seen before January) has been my greatest joy this semester. It’s been a long road, but I’m going to make it, thanks to my friends (new and old, here and back at home) and of course, my family, who has gracefully endured my weekly Skype rants.
To my host mother, thank you for feeding me. Dinner was always delicious even if the conversations sometimes alarmed me. I’m glad we more or less reached an understanding with one another, but I’m also very excited to go home and feel comfortable in my own house again.
To my professors, please take mercy on my conjugations.
And to Madrid, it’s been real[ly a long semester full of both wonderful and terrible experiences. I’m not sure if I’ll miss you, but I’ve learned a lot and that’s something I won’t ever regret. Buenas noches, España. Besos.].