My biggest takeaway from my semester abroad is now having friends all over the world. Finding housing, living in another culture, using the language I’d been studying for so long and navigating a new university were all rewarding experiences. But when people ask me, “How was Spain?”, the first thing I tell them is about all the friends I made.
Making meaningful connections with students from all over the world made my experience so memorable. It wasn’t at all what I expected, and that turned out to be a good thing. There are two types mentalities that many American students start a study abroad experience with.
Scenario No. 1: “I want to fully immerse myself in the culture.”: I was definitely guilty of this mentality before I went abroad. Of course, we go abroad to speak that language, learn what it is like to live in another country and trade your culture for another one for a few months. But a complete immersion experience usually isn’t possible. Think about your life. How many times has your group of friends befriended an exchange student? Sure, we all meet international students and become friends to varying degrees of closeness. But students at your university abroad don’t become best friends with the international students for the same reasons that you don’t do that at home. They’re busy, they have a full load of classes and they already have established lives, friends and obligations.
Scenario No. 2: “I would prefer to stick with my English-speaking friends from Ohio.”: This mentality is a complete 180 from the previous one. You will probably drawn to socialize with people who are like you and with whom you can communicate well. There is no shame in that. If you don’t have a common language with someone that you are both comfortable speaking on a casual level, you probably won’t become good friends with them. Part of studying abroad is stretching yourself to meet different types of people and find common ground with them.
I found that the ideal situation is something in between those two scenarios. It’s best to get to know Spanish students as well as your fellow students on exchange. I got to know several Spanish students well, in addition to several more students who aren’t Spanish but who study full time the University of Navarra. I learned so much about Spanish culture, slang and lifestyle from hanging out with these students. They were so generous to invite me to various events and re-explain things when I didn’t fully understand the cultural connotation.
I found as an exchange student I had a lot more free time than I do at home. Part of that had to do with how classes at UNAV are structured. There is less daily and weekly work. Each class usually only has a couple projects, papers or tests. The other part was that I didn’t have all the obligations that I do at home. I had a lot more time to socialize and hang out with friends. My fellow exchange students had similar schedules and interests as me. They, too, wanted to travel and had ample time to socialize.
Hanging out with students from all over the world gave me many opportunities that I would never have experienced otherwise. I celebrated Chinese New Year with several of the students from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Nearly once a week, someone hosted a dinner for the entire group featuring typical food from their country. It was a delicious way to make friends and learn about their culture. We discussed how everybody viewed EU austerity measures with a French, Germans, Dutch, Italians and Greeks all around the table.
My worldview expanded far beyond Pamplona, Spain. And the best part is I call all of these people friends. In the past week alone, I’ve gotten several messages and calls from friends I made abroad asking things like if I’m OK after Sandy or my take on the presidential election.
I never expected to meet all the people that I did. And now I can’t wait to see them again.
This is my bucket list of places to go to visit the people I met abroad. What’s on your list?