Finding Comfort in Memories of Study Abroad

June 23, 2021

By: Jason Kouba, Vice President of University Relations

One of my favorite things to do is travel.   To me, there is nothing better than having the chance to experience what life is like in another place.   I absolutely love the feeling of being somewhere for the first time; taking in the various sights and smells, hearing a new language, exploring the streets and shops, and speaking with locals and other visitors. This is my idea of paradise, and something I try to do as often as I can.

While I value these experiences greatly now, that hasn’t always been the case.  Growing up in a small Midwestern town I wasn’t exposed to the concept of travel all that much as a child.  Sure, we took family vacations, but enjoying the safety and comforts of home were what I grew up thinking was my ultimate happy place.  It wasn’t until I took my first Spanish class that I knew I wanted to pursue a different path; a path that eventually took me all the way to Spain. And I’ve never looked back…

As an undergraduate student, I chose to focus my studies on the Spanish language and culture.  Almost immediately I fell in love with everything about the Spanish tongue and quickly discovered a burning desire to learn as much as I could about the people who spoke this incredible language.  Right after high school, I had the opportunity to visit Ixtapa, Mexico. This was my first time traveling outside the United States, and one of only a handful of times leaving my home state of Wisconsin. While I spent most of my time in Mexico frolicking at a beautiful resort, it wasn’t the pristine water of the pools or the long list of planned activities I remember most.  What sticks out in my mind are the people I met- not the other resort guests, but the hotel workers, local shopkeepers, waiters, and landscapers.  I learned from this experience that I longed for a different kind of travel, and I was ready to make that happen.

In the fall of my junior year of college, I chose to embark on what would become the single most transformative experience of my life.  I made the decision to spend a semester abroad in Seville, Spain to take my love of the Spanish language and culture to the next level.  I was going to live with a Spanish family, eat Spanish food, and take every single one of my classes in Spanish.  I was both excited and terrified beyond imagination!  I knew that I very much wanted to do this, but because this was still not something that fit neatly into my pre-established comfort zone, it was harder than I thought to take the proverbial leap of faith by literally boarding that Iberia Airlines flight.

When I arrived in Seville, I was completely overwhelmed by everything.  Our on-site director met our flight, handed me a piece of paper with an address, and pointed to a queue of white taxis.  I joined another person from my program in the back seat, who I quickly learned would be my roommate for the next few months, and we were off to our new home.  As we passed through the streets of Seville, I felt the hot air of Andalucía in early September rush into the cab.  I could smell the scent of the famous orange trees and hear the “beep-beep” of the thousands of “motos” that puttered around the narrow streets and that would eventually come to lull me to sleep every night.  I saw countless signs for “El Corte Ingles” everywhere and wondered what in the world could this place be.  I was both thrilled and terrified and could not wait for what was next.

Over the course of the next three months, I would experience myriad moments that ranged from fear and anxiety to utter joy and amazement.  I soaked in everything I could about Spain, and along the way learned more about myself than I could have possibly imagined. I learned that I have an unquenchable thirst for exploration and that I never want to stop doing and seeing new things.  I discovered confidence in myself that I never knew existed, but that I am so thankful finally showed itself. I came to understand that you can experience contrasting emotions (such as sadness and joy, or anxiety and peace) at any given time or in response to a particular event- it all just depends on how you look at things.

Choosing to study abroad in Spain remains to this day one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  With travel all but coming to a halt as the world has worked to get past the devastation of a pandemic, I have found myself reflecting on my time abroad and the impact it has had on my life.  I recall the glorious memories of my first “tinto de verano” with people who would become lifelong friends.  I’ve poured through countless photo albums to reminisce the many happy memories I have of sharing hostels with strangers that would become my companions for short but eventful experiences.   I have found comfort from the chaos of the world by letting myself be transported back in time.

As I said at the start, I love to travel, and I know that I still have many amazing adventures ahead of me. Thanks to my role at API, I have the good fortune of spending almost every day encouraging others to embark on their own journey.  One day I hope that they too will have the chance to sit back and reflect on what their time abroad has meant to them, and share their wisdom with the next generation of travelers.

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