When I first decided to study abroad, it was kind of like this foggy dream; it was something that seemed so far away and unreachable and surreal that I mostly just thought of it like it wasn’t really happening. Then I got accepted to the program, and the dream became just a little less foggy, the edges a touch less blurry, the picture a tiny bit clearer. But still, I thought that this thing, this huge opportunity, couldn’t possibly really happen, it couldn’t possibly be real. Sure, in the back of my head I knew that it was going to happen, but it was so hard to imagine that I didn’t even try to.
Then we had the first study abroad meeting with our adviser. Pardon my French, but that was when shit started to get real. I walked into that meeting, expecting to be told to check that passport was up to date (it wasn’t, by the way, and you should get that settled before you even apply to the program, if you’re thinking about studying abroad) and then be given just a few bare minimum details about what to expect… Nope. I walked out of that meeting with an itinerary and a link to a plane ticket I was told to buy as soon as possible. I remember leaving the meeting and feeling a little lightheaded, like someone had yanked the rug out from underneath me and stood me up before I could catch my breath. Like I’d just been told to jump, but I didn’t know where I was jumping from or whether there would be water, rocks, or something else entirely waiting for me when I landed. Suddenly, my imagined timeline was shortened from “sometime in the future, eventually” to “just a few weeks away.” I’m not going to lie (especially since this post is called “What No One Tells You;” it would seem pretty inappropriate not to tell you), I was terrified.
Reality Sets In
The closer our departure date got, the more nervous I got. This trip still seemed like something I imagined, even as we sat on the plane, getting ready to take off. It still wasn’t very real to me. It wasn’t real when we took off, it wasn’t real when we finally landed in Madrid, it wasn’t real during the three hour bus ride to Valladolid, it wasn’t even real in the taxi on the way to meet my host mom. Not until I got to my host mom’s apartment and she greeted me in Spanish did it actually sink in: I’m in Spain; for the next five months of my life, this is where I live. I felt this odd mixture of relief, excitement, and fear settle in on my shoulders. Relief that I’d finally made it to my destination, excitement for the road ahead of me, and fear about my ability to adapt, among other things. Here was this little woman, talking to me in rapid-fire Spanish, giving me a kiss on each cheek, and smiling at me. I felt awkward, and the smile on my face was stiff and tinged with doubt: could I really do this? I wasn’t sure, but I no longer had a choice.
The First Weeks
Everyone tells you that the first few weeks of studying abroad are emotional. But no one tells you quite how emotional they are, or what kind of emotions you’ll experience. Before starting my journey, I anticipated only feeling fear and shock, and probably some homesickness. I thought I’d only experience negative emotions, with maybe a break here and there with some happier feelings. While I’ve certainly felt all of those things, they don’t make up the overwhelming majority of my emotions. All of the feelings in the airplane bubble picture above? Throughout these past 23 day, I’ve felt all of them at one time or another. Some of them probably don’t seem to make much sense– how could I have felt hateful at one point, and thankful at another?– and I’m not going to pretend that they always do make sense. I’ve felt hateful for not understanding the language all the time, and I don’t even know why; there’s no good reason to feel hate (in this instance, and in general) about something that I can’t do, and I can’t even pinpoint who or what that hate is even directed at. Luckily, that’s not a feeling I get very often. More frequently, I’m thankful for such an amazing opportunity to learn and grow and open my mind.
No one tells you that sometimes you just get lonely, even if you’re sitting with your host family. I don’t mean that you don’t recognize that there are other people around you, I mean that you do recognize that there are other people around you, and that they have been raised in an entirely different, region, language, culture, and style than you. The people around you are so different from yourself, and all of those differences are nearly blinding, which can make you feel pretty isolated. However, it helps (so, so much) if you remember that it’s entirely possible, and even probable, that any of the people or friends you know back home have also been raised in an entirely different region, language, culture, and style than you, even if it doesn’t seem like it, and you still managed to find a sense of belonging with them. Why not do the same in this new place? When I remember that, I feel less lonely, and more unique– I have my very own story to tell, just like everyone else in the entire world, but that can unite us instead of divide us.
There are a lot of emotions and feelings in that picture, I know, a whole spectrum of good and bad. But the one feeling you don’t see listed up there? Regret. Because I don’t regret my decision at all. I have already learned so much and exponentially expanded my view on the world, even though I’ve only been here for less than a month. Every single thing that’s happened, good or bad, has taught me something and helped me to be a better person. Yeah, it’s hard, and it’s nothing like anything else I’ve ever experienced, but if it were easy, if it were a repeat of another experience, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new. I wouldn’t be faced with new challenges and I wouldn’t need to get creative to figure out how to do something I’ve never done before (because I would already know how to do it). And then, what would be the point? If I came here and learned nothing, there’d be no reason to come here in the first place. But, if I leave here with new knowledge, even if that knowledge doesn’t include a better grasp on the Spanish language, then it’s worth it. Because I’ve already learned so much, it’s already worth it. All of the tears, all of the frustration, and all of the confusion, are all worth it for this opportunity to grow and continue to make myself the best version of me that I can. You’ll never see regret on that list, because I’ve already been rewarded with knowledge, and I continue to be rewarded every day that I stay here and learn.
About the Author – Alex Marchi, Spring 2017 BCA Valladolid, Spain Student
My name is Alex Marchi, and I’m currently a junior at Lebanon Valley College. I’m majoring in criminal justice and Spanish, and I have a minor in law and society. After I graduate, I’d like to work for the DEA and possibly get my Juror’s Doctorate (law degree). In my minuscule free time, I enjoy reading, writing, and cuddling with my dog—preferably while drinking tea.