My Biggest Take Away from Study Abroad
By now, we’re all used to the average study abroad blog posts. Insert an epic picture of the student with arms outstretched on top of a mountain / in front of a cathedral / on a camel / beaming in a medieval market. Write five hundred words covering the following; personal growth, homesickness, the cheapness of air travel in Europe. And wrap it all up with a lovely thank you to everyone who’s ever supported that student on their travel and educational (travelcational?) journey. We all know these.
But I’m here to write a different kind of study abroad post. When I went to the University of Alcalá outside of Madrid, Spain last September, I knew I would be changed. I knew I’d meet incredible people, see incredible places, and every day feel lucky to be there. But I didn’t know just how humbled and astonished I would feel when I learned my biggest lesson. Because my most important highlight from study abroad wasn’t perfected Spanish preterite conjugations, an understanding of Don Quijote or an appreciation for Spanish food; it was learning the absolute, indescribable power of kindness.
Learning a foreign language can be difficult. Feeling out of place is worse. Although I certainly do not look Spanish, as a young white woman with dark hair, I certainly felt the lightest degree of outsiderness in Spanish culture. The regional and national pride was very strong, and it was immediately detectable when the Spaniards realized, “Oh, you’re not from here.”
The casual jokes, the condescension, the beleaguering sense of annoyance I received from grocery store clerks, shopkeepers, and even students was painful. It hurt to hear people making fun of me when they thought I couldn’t understand them (and I could). It irritated me that I was deemed not up to standard, even though I was placed at a relatively high level within my Spanish program.
Recharging my SIM card at the phone store became an event that I had to psych myself up for, as the lackadaisical phone store employee openly ignored me, and then called me a stupid American under her breath when I asked her to repeat a question. My roommate and I avoided going to the grocery store across the street because the cashier, an unfortunate charlatan named Juanito, would harass us, and we wouldn’t always understand every word.
Did everyone act like this? Absolutely not. I met many kind people, especially Spanish women, who made me feel like I was right at home. The women that I met on a guided tour through Sevilla felt like my mother’s best friends. My teachers at Alcalingua Language Department were probably two of the favourite professors I’ve ever had. The other exchange students in Alcalá were absolutely incredible. And their kindness was only more palpable to me, after some of the less positive encounters.
Those moments of disappointment and isolation brought me to the rather plain conclusion that kindness matters. It mattered so much more to me when I felt at a disadvantage, when I couldn’t just brush off a negative person with a witty line (i.e. I didn’t have any!). When people were kind to me, I felt encouraged and invigorated. I felt that, although I was bumbling along, I was bumbling charmingly.
Kindness mattered so much more to me in Spanish than in English. And while I hope I don’t come off as rude in passing in Canada, I wonder how many times I’ve come across someone who speaks English as a second language, who desperately needs just a little bit more engagement, a smile, an invitation to a department party. I want to be kinder to these people. I can be better, and I will be.
In my time in Spain, I had only the tiniest taste of what it feels like to be overwhelmed by a second language. There were days when I needed a positive interaction. There were days when misunderstandings and embarrassing moments piled onto each other. There were days when I wanted someone to tell me I was doing great, even if they were lying. I know that students all around me are living the same reality that I did. And I just want to make their days a little brighter.
I’m grateful to arrive at this simple, beautiful aim. Well there it is again. Gratitude, that epitomizing blogger’s term. But in all honesty, I’m so grateful for my study abroad and for the chance to travel and meet new people. Yet I’m even more grateful for the hard times that forced me to take a harder look in the mirror. I’m lucky to have learned a lesson I never would have internalized if I didn’t go abroad. And even if ending here, on the subject of gratitude, makes this just another study abroad blog, I think I can handle that.