Today’s blog post comes to us from University of Vermont student & #APIabroad Fall 2019 blogger Sophia Ma! She’s studying abroad with API in Salamanca, Spain this semester. Last month, she shared a blog post about some things she wishes she had done during her first study abroad semester in Spain. To balance it out, today she’s sharing the things she’s glad she did!
1. I’m glad I socialized to the most-est
I’ve always fallen more on the extroverted side because I love being with people (well, friendly people). But in Spain, I stretched my social skills to an even higher level. And there are many reasons for that: I was less stressed out about school work because I didn’t have to worry about getting As. (my home university doesn’t count the grades we earn abroad into our GPA; as long as we get a C or above, the credits get transferred.) Students were from all around the world, so I was at a more diverse environment, and most importantly, I was able to push myself so far out of my comfort zone.
To begin with, I purposely hung out less with Americans and made more international friends instead. I know this might seem biased, but it did push me out of my comfort zone and forced me not to speak as much English. I mean, there are plenty of opportunities to make friends with Americans in America, but while I was in Spain, it seemed more worthy to reach out to people from elsewhere.
I also participated in literally every single event the university offered: Tandem nights, excursion trips, clubbing, sports days, wine tasting, and more. I met so many people everywhere I went, and it was even easier to do in a small city like Leon. Aside from socializing, I also tried my best to build bridges between different cultures and bring students from all over the world altogether. One of the most significant things I did was organizing a Chinese dinner for more than 90 students as a cultural event. It was a tedious process, and I even missed some classes from working for dinner. However, it was all worth it to see everybody learns how to use chopsticks, and signing the national anthem with all my Chinese friends was one of the few best moments in my life.
A tradition in León was a nomination of selecting the “best” exchange students of the semester every year. Unbelievable as it was, I was given the title of “Miss Always Erasmus” by all students’ nomination, which was the highest level among all. I was selected because of my excessive amount of participation in everything and my “unconditional effort to socialize.” I won the title, a sash, and presents. A “Miss Erasmus” title might not be something I should put on my resume, for me, however, it was such an honor and recognition for all my accomplishments during my time abroad.
We all bought giant Spanish flags and had our friends sign them. I had to get three because I made so many friends and there wasn’t enough space for everybody to write! I still have all my flags hung up on the wall in my room, and every time I feel lonely, I look at my flags, read them, and am reminded that I have friends who love me from all over the world. I had many souvenirs and other stuff from Spain, but my three flags are the most precious thing from my time in Spain and in my life.
The good times go away fast, but friends stay forever–especially the friends you make when you study abroad.
2. I’m glad I traveled a lot within Spain
It’s no secret that when you study in a European country, traveling is without a doubt on the bucket list. It’s easy to travel from one country to another at a low cost, so most students studying in Europe travel whenever they get the chance. While it’s great and all, I didn’t explore other European countries as much, instead, I stayed in León, and in Spain, most of the time.
When my friends were hanging out with the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, I stayed in León, getting acquainted with local restaurants, dancing at the city concert, and hanging out with people. On the weekends, I took road trips to other places in Spain like Oviedo, Santander, Gijón and visited all these small villages where you can’t just fly into. Of course, I missed out on some opportunities to travel outside of Spain–you can’t be everywhere all at once, I guess. But I saw so much of Spain, became so immersed in my host city, and got close with everybody in León–from waiters to shop owners, from bartenders to the buskers.
At the end of the semester, I took a solo trip to Paris and Amsterdam, which was something I always wanted to do. But the second I got on the plane, I started to have strong FOMO of things in León. I didn’t end up having much fun traveling like I thought, simply because I was missing my friends, my city, and wondering what was happening on the weekends. By the end of my stay, León had indeed become my home where I can always go back to. And I cannot give enough credits to myself for immersing in Spain and the city when I could have been at a parade in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day.
Paris is not going anywhere, but when is the next time we get to spend a substantial amount of time in one place? I’m obsessed with traveling so I would never discourage anyone from doing so. But Spain is a beautiful country and while you are in it, isn’t it the best opportunity to explore it to the fullest?
3. I’m glad I went so far away from my comfort zone
They say the magic happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. I’m a big fan of this whole “you can only grow if you’re willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new” theory. It’s not to say that you can’t grow if you aren’t embarrassed, definitely no! However, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of being outside of your comfort zone.
Studying abroad is the time when you have countless “firsts” in your life: first tapas, the first taste of local wine, first Spaniard friend, and… need I name more? It’s all these “first times” that make studying abroad a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When I was in Spain, I tried to have as many firsts as possible, which means I tried almost every new thing that was there. Not going to lie, many of the things I did couldn’t be more uncomfortable and sometimes even embarrassing. Let’s just say that being at a social event without understanding a thing people say was not my favorite moment.
BUT, here’s the but: do I regret putting myself in such a position afterward? Not at all! If anything, I appreciate my bravery, courage, and even recklessness, if you will. Looking back, it was those breaking-out-of-my-comfort-zone moments that dug the most out of my potentials each time. I came home after Spain feeling like a different person in the best way, and I never would’ve felt such a way if I clung to everything that felt familiar and secure.
The second we step on the plane, we’re leaving behind everything we’re familiar with. It’s scary, I know. But think about why you chose to study abroad in the first place–to experience new things, no? So get out of your comfort zone, stretch yourself to the fullest, you might realize that you’re so much more capable than you thought. Another thing that’s cliché but also true is that: you are most likely to regret the things you don’t do than the things you DO. So listen to Nike and me: just do it!
4. I’m glad I made so many Spanish friends
Finding Americans and making friends with them was one of the first things I did when I arrived in Spain. I had just landed in a foreign country and being with “my people” brought comfort and familiarity, which made me feel like I wasn’t far away from home.
At first, I was hanging out with my American friends every day; we only practiced our Spanish in class and always spoke English outside of the classrooms. I formed a clique with all the American students in the city within no time. However, I soon realized that being in this little bubble wasn’t doing me any good and that I was missing the whole point of studying abroad. Thus, I started a rather tricky process of “crawling away” from all my American friends – one of the many getting-out-of-your-comfort-zone things that I did.
I started participating in activities at my university and making Spanish friends from classes, Tandem nights, and other events. My friends were always patient with my broken Spanish, they invited me to their parties, and by the end, I had met some of the best Spaniards in León. At the beginning, I barely understood anything when I was with them; well, to be honest, I still didn’t understand that much toward the end. However, the important thing was that through making Spanish friends, I learned so much about what Spanish people at my age were like, their social lives, and mostly, Spanish.
By the end, I had made many friends, and as a matter of fact, one of them became my best friend forever. Without a doubt, hang out with people you like and make friends regardless of where they are from. But also know that there are many Americans back in America, but not so many Spaniards. I say try hanging out with local people and your Spanish peers because this is simply the time to do so. As repetitive as this has come up: get out of your comfort zone!