Today’s blog comes to us from API student blogger Sophia Ma of the University of Vermont, as she shares her story of studying abroad not once, but twice! This time, she’s studying with us in Salamanca, Spain at the University of Salamanca.
I live in a Residencia instead of with a host family
Last time I studied in Spain, I lived with a host family—a single mom and her 28-year-old son. While it was a great experience, I wanted to try something different, so I chose to stay at the Residencia (student suites) in Salamanca. The Residencia is in an apartment that’s a 5-minute walk to the city center. There are 18 of us together– eight Spanish students from an intensive medical program and ten international exchange students, who are mostly Americans. While most people have a single room, I live in a double with another girl from API.
At the Residencia, there’s one common room where everybody eats and hangs out together, which is a new thing that I’d never experienced. Back in the U.S., everybody eats on their own time in the dining hall. In the Residencia, on the other hand, we have fixed meal hours every day; thus, we see each other at least three times a day at the dinner table. After each meal, we would stay in the dining room, hang out, chat, and sometimes go out to grab a drink. It didn’t take long for me to feel like home in the Residencia—an enormous and unique family that’s different from my host family in León.
At first, I didn’t feel comfortable living with so many people, and I thought I wouldn’t get the language immersion I had with a small Spanish family. After a couple of weeks, however, I fell in love with everybody in the Residencia, and we soon became a big family. Compared to León, I’m spending more time with my “family members” than before, as everybody is my age and we have a lot in common. Also, by living with eight Spanish students, my language skill is improving faster than ever.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not always perfect: with 18 people living together, it’s almost impossible to avoid conflicts, arguments, and other small things. However, we always work it out and end up laughing together at the dinner table—just like a real family.
My priorities have shifted
When I studied in León last year, my top priority was socializing; I was always making friends, participating in every event, and busy hanging out with people (maybe at some cost to my academics). I’ll never regret how much I socialized because I’ve gained lifelong, precious friendships and had some of the best experiences of my life. Nonetheless, this time I’m not as focused on meeting everybody— and why is that? Well, to start, it’s merely impossible. Unlike León, Salamanca has the notoriety of being the most famous and vibrant university city in Spain. The student population is so overwhelming that you can’t walk down the street without seeing students everywhere. In León, I pretty much knew all the international students by the end of my program. Yet, here in Salamanca, I have a smaller but tighter circle of friends – mostly my classmates and the people from my Residencia. Another reason I’m not as sociable is I simply don’t have the time for it. Salamanca University is one of the most prestigious universities in Spain and even in Europe, which also makes it one of the hardest, so my course load is a lot heavier than last time.
One of my biggest regrets from my last study abroad experience was that I didn’t study Spanish as hard as I could have. So, this time, I want to make up for what I missed last time—the perfect opportunity to learn Spanish, that is, being in Spain. I feel beyond fortunate to be able to study in Salamanca—which most Spaniards consider the best city to study Spanish. I would hate to miss another chance—even a better one –to fully immerse myself in the Castilian environment and get that Spanish fluency I’ve always dreamed of.
I’m putting learning Spanish and my academics as my top priority this time, but it doesn’t mean I’m missing out on all the fun now. On the contrary, as I see my Spanish improve day by day, I genuinely feel content and proud. And when I’m at a Spanish party without language barriers, it’s such a great sense of “fun” that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t speak the language.
I now look at everything from an “insider’s view”
Not having stepped a foot in Europe before, I arrived in Spain last year as a complete stranger; I didn’t know anything about the country or the continent, and I had to learn from scratch. On the one hand, everything was new and exciting as I went through the “money-moon” stage in León. Yet, on the other hand, I was often lost in between language barriers and different social codes. The first couple of months in León were a mix of experiences and emotions, which little by little, helped me become immersed and grounded in the city.
As this is my second time studying in Spain, many things don’t appear as new or as striking anymore. I don’t struggle with the language as much, I’m acquainted with the local social life, and I understand Spanish culture a lot better. Because of my familiarity with Spain, it didn’t take me long to get adjusted to my surroundings. It was more of an adjustment to a different city rather than a different culture. For example, when I was in León last year, I encountered various situations where I felt insulted by specific comments Spanish people made about my race. I would get offended, thinking that people meant to hurt my feelings. But later on, I learned that most of the time, they don’t mean it badly, but simply have a different sense of humor, and the lines of limits lie differently in Spain. Many of the jokes Spaniards make are often considered socially inappropriate in the U.S. as the two countries have drastic cultural differences and social conducts. With such knowledge, I’m able to tell when people actually cross the line now.
After having my first experience studying in Spain, I now feel less of a foreigner and more of an insider. Now I have a more profound understanding of my surroundings, and I can always reflect on my past experiences when I face similar struggles.
It’s such an incredible experience to be able to study abroad in the same country twice with two entirely different perspectives. I want to cherish this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Therefore, this time, I want to get the most out of my second time abroad.