“When I Let Go Of What I Am, I Become What I Might Be”: Study Abroad Lessons

While I’ve been back in New York City for a while I’ve still been trying to put into words the experiences and memories I’ve created this summer, and I still can’t even decide where I want to begin this journey of reflection. As you may or may not know I had the privilege of spending my summer outside of the United States: I studied abroad for six weeks in Madrid and then went back home to Monterrey, Mexico for two weeks to conduct research on popular female perceptions of Our Lady of Guadalupe (and yes, there will be a blog post on doing research soon!). Madrid was beautiful and pushed me towards learning more about who I am and what I want in life, but being in Mexico was such a refreshing reminder of my roots and overall my favorite experience abroad.

I’ve said this before on here, but as someone who grew up in a low-income household I always viewed travelling as a luxury that I’d never be able to do at this age. I had to negotiate and talk to many people at NYU to get the funding for Madrid, and a lot of work was put in so that I could earn travel grants for my research in Mexico. I’m a strong believer of putting yourself out there to get what you want, and I don’t think anyone’s financial situation should prevent them from living their best life (but if you’re stuck, click here for a list of study abroad scholarships I created). To be honest with you there were moments I felt guilt, as if I wasn’t supposed to be in Europe, and it was tough having to miss out on several experiences because I could not afford them, yet being able to say I lived in Spain for a period of time is something I never imagined.

Traveling is more than a physical journey- it entails trials and tribulations that pressure you to explore yourself as well. I had such an amazing time not just because of the new experiences and friends I made but also because I was doing what I never imagined myself doing before. Also, finally spending a summer without job responsibilities felt like a much deserved break from reality. It was a summer filled with fun, but I’m relieved to be back and establish some structure to my daily life.

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Paseo Santa Lucía

(Before I even begin, I’d like to take a moment to thank everybody who helped me make this dream a reality. Thank you to all of my friends who donated to my GoFundMe campaign: you truly have no idea how much your donations meant to me and how grateful I am to have people like you in my life. Thank you to my family who helped fund my trip and who housed and fed me: without your unconditional support I would not be the young woman I am today, you guys enable me to reach my dreams. I want to thank everybody who had any influence on this life-changing journey of mine: as I said, your encouragement fuels me to reach for the stars.)

On Spain:

Going into Spain I did not have any expectations; I had no idea what I would experience and what I’d learn, so I went in completely open to anything and everything. I took two courses in Madrid: Artwork in the Prado Museum and Critical Approaches in Spanish, both which I really appreciated for letting me step out of my usual math/econ sphere. The program itself was very short, lasting a total of six weeks, yet everyday was packed with new experiences, laughter, and lessons. I forced myself to leave my comfort zone and was fortunate enough to try new foods, learn new dance moves, and make many new friends!

There is so much to unpack from my summer studying abroad, however if I had to make lesson out of what I learned it’s definitely the following.

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The Guggenheim in Bilbao

It’s Expensive

I’m not just talking about the flight, tuition, and everything else that you already pay for as a student. I’m talking about the unplanned late-night taxis, the wallet you have to replace because you had too much fun on a Friday night , and all the dinner outings you didn’t budget in because you thought you’d actually be cooking. There are so many little expenses that sneak into your daily routine and eventually add up, forcing you to eat lentil soup for dinner six nights in a row (I speak from experience). Having to worry about every dollar that leaves your pocket is exhausting, so if you are going abroad make sure to budget in even more money than you think you’d need. Plan for every imaginable scenario and make sure you also plan to splurge once in a while.

If you have the opportunity to get a part-time job while you’re abroad, do it! After the first week I was financially stuck, however when I was offered a position to teach English in a Spanish household I immediately took it without thought. As a consequence of my program being so short working in Madrid was one of my few opportunities to be with locals and see how they really live, plus it was an enjoyable experience!

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Cutest little restaurant in Toledo, Spain

Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

I acknowledge the fact that I am a control freak who practically needs to plan out every detail and second of my day, but this is virtually impossible when you’re living in a country you’ve never been to, with a transportation system you’ve never known, interacting with people you’ve never met before. My need to be in control of every situation is one of my biggest flaws, but this summer has allowed me to see just how toxic this is and how much I can spoil my own mood. It was the perfect opportunity to reflect and work on this fault as I had to force myself to relax and be okay with the unexpected. I believe it has also pushed me even further away from that black-and-white mentality I often lean towards which is equally as stress-inducing.

If you are not ready to constantly leave your comfort zone then maybe studying abroad is not the best option for you, hfowever I’d have to ask you to reconsider. I don’t think any other experience will really allow you to grow and learn about yourself as much as being abroad will. There will be nights you wish you could teleport back home and you regret even boarding that plane but you have to remember where you are and what it took you to get there. Studying abroad is a culmination of little personal tests and obstacles that ultimately bring you closer to knowing yourself and what you really want out of life.

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Huge crowds in Madrid showed up for World Pride 2019, as seen from the rooftop of Círculo de Bellas Artes.

Go With the Flow

This falls along becoming comfortable with discomfort but places emphasis on making the most of every single moment. You’re not going to have another opportunity to live in a completely different continent for such an extended period of time again so you have to be open to spontaneity. Thinking back on my summer abroad there are so many nights I wish I would’ve placed more importance on making memories rather than getting enough hours of sleep, and so many meals I wish I would’ve just splurged on. There are moments I wish I hadn’t cared so much about what the people around me thought and people I should’ve started conversations with. Regret really sucks, so don’t be so stuck on keeping a regular routine or trying to make good impressions.

I didn’t realize just how essential flexibility was until I injured my ankle one morning running through Casa de Campo. I was beating myself up for days thinking about how I ruined my own routine and how I’d have to adjust my eating habits to my new lack of exercise. Without knowing it I had wasted a considerable chunk of my time in Spain worrying about these tiny issues when I could’ve been focusing on other things. The lesson is to just accept situations as they come and work around them: you can’t change what you can’t change, so save yourself the time and trouble.

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San Sebastian, Spain

Get Ready to Become Real Close With Strangers

When I accepted the study abroad offer I had a very vague idea of who would be in my program, but since I love meeting people I wasn’t very concerned either. While I expected to make a couple of good friends who I’d bump into now and then on campus after the program ended I didn’t anticipate just how close we’d actually become within the span of six weeks. As they’re the only established network you start with abroad you literally see them every day and share every other meal together. You will see each other at your best and your worst. You’ll party together, travel together, eat together, and remember that you actually have to study for class together.

The ugly truth is that the group you start with progressively becomes smaller and smaller, and people tend to slowly stop putting so much effort into being inclusive. This isn’t a bad thing, but it allows you to see people’s true colors. I think that’s why you become so close with the friends you make studying abroad: you go through so many tiny obstacles that if you’re still there in the end of it you know it’s a true friendship. Even after saying all of this, you should not be afraid to branch out and be friendly.

On Mexico:

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Madrid is filled with beautiful sights and an incredible nightlife, however after not having been in Mexico in about 9 years the joy I felt finally being in Monterrey completely transcended anything I experienced in Spain. It was beautiful seeing and tasting and hearing familiar things, but doing this through a more mature and understanding perspective really made me appreciate all the tiny details I never bothered to notice as a child. What made it even more amazing was adding new memories and exploring facets of my home-country which I never encountered before.

Due to the nature of my research I came in contact with a lot of people in Monterrey, and as I interviewed them I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride in being able to celebrate my home and my people through research. I never thought I’d be capable of research; in fact I completely rejected the idea going into college because I didn’t believe in my skills and intelligence enough, yet there I was. I chose a topic that is very dear to my heart and my heritage and that I grew up with without really knowing what it entailed. I think that’s also what made this experience so invaluable: I was doing the very exact thing I didn’t think I was gifted enough to do. I was proving my own criticisms wrong, and learning more about my culture.

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Basilica of Guadalupe in Monterrey

 

I switched between living in Monterrey with my aunt and living in Linares (my hometown) with my grandparents, a completely different experience than in Madrid where I was living in a student residence with mostly NYU students. As I said, it had been around nine years since I last visited so being reunited with the majority of my family was the biggest blessing I could’ve asked for. They were so kind and welcoming and my experience wouldn’t have been the same without their hospitality. I was constantly surrounded by my family which was a beautiful feeling and a change from living on my own in New York; in fact, I got so accustomed to always being with people that when I came back it was a tad depressing seeing an empty apartment.

Besides the obvious joy of being reunited with family, one of my favorite parts was the food! Madrid isn’t exactly known for having the most flavorful food so being able to savor my favorite dishes once again was a huge relief. In the span of two weeks I added a wide array of new dishes to my “to-cook” list and became a salsa-fanatic, and I won’t even mention the amount of tacos I basically ingested (hint: it’s a lot). It was also remarkable to just walk around and feel at home; it’s a feeling I can’t describe but that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

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Couples dancing at La Macroplaza on a Sunday afternoon.

Overall I’m forever grateful for this summer and I look forward to implementing the lessons I learned. It was an enriching experience that I will forever remember and that I look forward to doing again!

 

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