In the weeks leading up to my semester abroad, I had a a lot of worries running through my mind, but above all, I was nervous about “culture shock.” It seemed as though I couldn’t escape that term, as warnings flew at me from every direction whether it be my parents, former study abroad students, or academic advisers. I started to think that living in another country meant every part of my daily life was inherently going to change, that my life in Spain would have no resemblance to my life at Bama. And honestly, as much as I was nervous, I was also thrilled by the idea of that reality. As a spanish major, I welcomed the opportunity to embrace an authentic spanish lifestyle and immerse myself in both the language as well as the culture.
However, upon my arrival, I was truly taken aback by how normal everything seemed. Of course, Madrid is different than Tuscaloosa, and while I initially embraced the life of a tourist – touring the famous museums, walking through the scenic parks, and visiting the important sites – soon enough classes started and my life fell into routine. After a few weeks, I began to realize that immersion was actually going to be more work than I thought. It isn’t something that just happens the second you step into a different country, rather, it takes active effort.
I think my biggest hindrance to immersion is living in an apartment. While I wanted to live in a home-stay (and I 100% recommend a home-stay to anyone planning on studying abroad), I did not have the money at the time when I signed up for my program to make that happen. Instead, I live in a flat with 7 other English speaking, american girls. On the one hand, it’s been great to have built in friends around at all times, and I’m never bored. But on the other hand, I have been lacking the exposure to the spanish community and locals for which I was originally so excited. My classes are also not as immersive as I had expected. I do take all of my classes in spanish, so that is great listening practice, but most of my class mates are from the US, greatly limiting my interactions with native spanish students.
To combat this lack of immersion, I joined my university’s volleyball team, composed of only spanish students. My team has not only allowed me to practice my spanish skills, but also make friends with native spanish college students. It has without a doubt been the best experience of my time abroad thus far. I have also branched out and attended various local festivals, taken advantage of my schools “mixers” to meet more local students, and joined a cooking class to learn how to make authentic spanish dishes.
With all of this in mind, my greatest piece of advice to anyone studying abroad is this: don’t just sit idly by and live your life in the same routine as you would back home. Go out into whatever new and exotic country you get to temporarily call home and work hard to experience the culture, meet the locals, join in traditions, and live the authentic lifestyle while you have the chance. You’ll regret it if you don’t.