Friday, June 17, 2016

Anna in Spain!

This is it! The final week of my study abroad trip in Madrid, Spain has arrived. Most people think that five weeks seems to be an insufficient amount of time to become “fully emerged” in another culture. I am here to tell you to never underestimate your brain’s ability to absorb massive amounts of information in a relatively small time frame. If you read my classmates’ blogs about their experience in this program, you will read about castles and cathedrals. This blog post deviates from that slightly as I am concerned with giving some advice to those who plan to study abroad, but who also feel a bit of uneasiness toward the unknown.

Me outside The College for International Studies. While we were learning Spanish, there were other international students learning English in this same building.

Before I dive into my experience in Spain, I want to talk to the introverted, slightly neurotic individuals for a moment. When I got accepted into LIHC, I grappled with the fact that one day I would have to board a plane by myself and be dropped off in a country where I wouldn’t have the capability to even order a meal. The time leading up to this trip was filled with frantic thoughts. I am a planner, but there was no way for me to plan for such a novel experience. All I could do was brush up on some Spanish, pack a small suitcase, and begin my ambitious endeavor. There are many practical reasons to study abroad: It gives you a slight advantage in the job market as it makes you appear more culturally competent. I feel that most introverted individuals slow down and think of the practicality of what they are doing; however studying abroad is worthless if you can’t value the experience beyond its function on your resume. It is vital to package this experience in way that will make you competitive for a job or a graduate program, but remember to slow down and embrace the moments that will become treasured memories. Traveling as a student is an opportunity everyone should experience. You will not only learn about another culture, but you will learn to see the culture through the eyes of a local. Nonetheless, there will be a few bumps on this path to cultural wisdom. 

The Aqueduct in Segovia.

Most people around me did not experience culture shock…I did. Like I said before, I am a planner. I take great comfort in knowing exactly what is going on around me. Unfortunately, my Spanish skills did not stretch beyond a 102 level. Most of the students who lived in my house were Spanish minors. Needless to say, they were fairly comfortable talking to locals and could easily communicate with our host mother. I felt incompetent and juvenile as I sat silently at the dinner table while the “grown ups” engaged in meaningful conversation with our host mother. It was even worse when I tried to speak to locals. There were times when I just froze midsentence, indicating my lack of Spanish fluency and my failure to conceal the fact that I stuck out like a sore American thumb. This all sounds unpleasant….it was. As time went by, I broke through that awkward, uncomfortable silence to reveal that I could speak a lot better than I thought. The trick is to talk despite the fact that maybe your accent muddies the clarity of your speech or maybe you asked the lady at the market for “trash” instead of “bag.” In my defense, “bolsa” and “basura” sound very similar.  

The view from our host mother's balcony!

Aside from the obvious language barrier, the cultural differences were very manageable. Nonetheless, there are some worth mentioning for anyone who is thinking about going to Spain. For one, get used to the metro. Like any big city, the metro is the most practical method of travel, so it is normal to see a herd of people hopelessly packed into a tiny corner. As a southern American, I was raised to embrace the concept of “personal space.” In America, pushing your way through a crowd of people can lead to confrontation. In Madrid, there is a universal understanding that being pushed by someone does not indicate aggression, rather a genuine effort to get from point A to point B. 

The view from an overlook in Toledo

Additionally, Spaniards’ paradigm of food deviates greatly from our American mindset. A meal is only for a moment. In other words, you sit down and eat all of your food at one time; there are no to-go boxes. It is not that people here take pleasure in dumping out food; they simply do not see the quality in a leftover meal that demands to be thrown in the microwave. Not every person thinks this way, but this mindset is fairly common.  

Stopping for a picture as we walked through the streets of Segovia.

Making the decision to study abroad takes bravery and independence. Naturally, with bravery and independence come anxiety and fear…for some, at least. There are some people who never think twice about questing on a new adventure. They can board a plane and land in a foreign place without knowing where to go or how to speak the language. It is okay to feel scared and to shy away from locals at first. It is okay to crave that American familiarity. It is okay to feel out of place among people who belong. Earlier I talked about some individuals’ tendency to think about the practicality of their actions. This is such an adaptive strategy, but only in the right context. The art of adapting in a foreign environment requires you to ditch that safe practicality. Do things because you want to experience them (Nothing illegal). Who cares if locals are staring you down? Jump into a conversation with someone. Let go of the fear of appearing stupid when you don’t know exactly how to respond. Take the initiative to ride the metro somewhere new by yourself (during daylight). Explore. The moment you choose to untangle yourself from worry is the moment when you start to adapt to your new surroundings. In the last few weeks, I have started to speak Spanish more and more. I feel somewhat competent having a conversation with my host mom or asking for directions. I even mustered up the courage to explore the city on my own. I have realized studying abroad is not so much about how well you can fit into a culture; it is about how well you can adapt to the culture. Letting go of my anxiety of being viewed a certain way by locals has granted me amazing memories with some pretty awesome people. I am pleased to say that I have made the most out of my international experience. I hope all of you receive the opportunity to do the same.

Best wishes!
UNCG in Spain
Madrid, Spain

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Corey and Carl in Spain!

Day one. It's 11:35am and I'm trying to find my way around the Madrid airport in search of my checked-in luggage. Why don't I just ask someone? Perfect. Wait, how do you say "checked-in luggage" in Spanish? Where do I go once I retrieve it?? Where's my apartment? Oh no...

This was just the beginning to the start of my five-week experience here in Madrid, Spain. However, it quickly became, and still is, one of the best and most extraordinary experiences of my entire life. Let me, and my dragon Carl, share some of our stories.

I've lived in a semi-suburban city in Southern California and Greensboro, and I've lived in the middle of nowhere in my hometown Four Oaks, NC. What I haven't done is live in the middle of downtown of a giant city. Our directors say it is the US equivalent of living in downtown Manhattan. Within the first few days, I did so many things I thought I'd never do. I got a metro card (which I had to make an appointment for online, in Spanish!) and mastered the metro station. I tried sheep-intestine which surprisingly wasn't all that bad. Most importantly, I roomed with eight other students (and a pretty cool guy from Denmark), and started making some of the best memories of my life.

Our schedule for the five weeks was pretty straight forward: classes from 2pm-5pm almost everyday with a few museum trips in between. I am currently taking SPA 332 and SPA 313, Spain history and Spanish conversation, respectively, which both teach us the value and uniqueness of the language and culture (especially during our cultural visits). The first weekend we went to Segovia as a group (30 students plus 3 faculty). It was sort of like a trail, passing by multiple historic sights and structures. My favorite there was the famous aqueduct as well as the cathedral. They were both so beautiful and amazing pieces of history in Spain.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Jeremy in Peru!

Hello everyone and greetings from Lima, Peru! I could definitely go on forever about my experience thus far, but I promised myself I wouldn’t write a short story. This semester studying abroad has been one like no other. Many of you reading this have already studied abroad, may be preparing for your own journey, or contemplating the entire possibility. After finally deciding on a country and a school to study at, you spend countless hours reading dozens of articles and watching numerous videos about life in your desired country. Well, at least that is what I did. And since the semester here at USIL in Lima did not begin until March 2016, I had more than enough time to prepare myself (maybe a little too much time). I hope you will enjoy a bit of my journey so far in Lima as I share with you a few of my humorous thoughts and give some (hopefully) helpful advice. 

Plaza Mayor. Historic Centre. Lima, Peru.

Living in Lima has been very different for me. You’re probably thinking, “duh you’re in a foreign country, what do you expect?” Consider this: it took me several weeks to get used to campus life, driving and living in Greensboro. Though not as big as Raleigh or Charlotte, it is still a larger place with way more people and traffic than what I am used to having in the ‘252’. You drop me in a city larger than NYC with nearly 10 million people, what do you think exactly happened??? Well not to worry! I haven’t had any panic attacks yet (#ThankYouLord!), but I will say that actually living in this city has surpassed what I could have ever imagined if I were only to have watched others' travels on YouTube. Although I am a brave person, I have to say that I am very fortunate to have four fellow Spartans here apart of the same program. It definitely eased the transition and the lack of us knowing each other went out the window when we all realized we were thousands of miles from home (and Chick-fil-A). 

Highest View of Lima, Peru
Arriving a couple weeks before school began gave me much time to get adjusted to Lima and the crazy traffic. Peruvians are very nice! (a little too friendly for my preference at first but I came around…if you know me than you understand lol)   The food here has been great thus far, but since I like to cook and save my ‘Tubmans', I don’t eat out much. BTW shopping here at first was a bit of a challenge, but you adjust to all of it. Though Lima holds much Peruvian culture, as the capital of Peru it is still very ‘European/Americanized’ in my opinion. How so? Well many food corporations from the U.S. are here, like Starbucks & KFC, as well as popular clothing stores, such as H&M. My early arrival allowed me time to explore the various districts of the city with friends and to also do historical tours. The best part was being able to plan early trips to other parts of Peru. I encourage you to travel outside of your residing city whenever possible to get different perceptions of what it means to be a native. Some places I have visited so far in Peru include Ica, Huaraz, and even a short time in Arequipa. I plan to do some more traveling (as much as my budget and schedule will allow)! 

Sandboarding in Ica, Peru

As I am sitting here reflecting, I realize I just missed my 90-day Insta’ post but this will definitely make up for it. I want to leave some advice for anyone who is considering or preparing for study abroad--in case we don’t ever speak in person:
 #1) If you get the OPPORTUNITY, take it! If I had not set aside the time to consider this chance to travel abroad this semester, I do not believe it would have come together so nicely. 
#2) The EXPERIENCE cannot be duplicated, so make the most of the time that you have. Nothing will be exactly how you are used to having it or how you pictured it in your head. Nevertheless try new things, meet some people, and make friends with natives and other internationals. Especially get to know the ambassadors (similar to UNCG Pals) on campus.  

Sandboarding in Ica, Peru
#3) Remember it is STUDY abroad, so take responsibility to maintain a nice balance of work and play. (Because we know that playing can get out of hand in another country where the laws may be more lenient and….Point made).  
 #4) BE YOUrself! I can’t tell you how many times people look surprised to know that I am from the U.S. (and not Brazil or wherever? My lack of Spanish skills at the peak of conversation probably gives it away LOL) Many Peruvians have even told me they are very honored to have us (gringos) think enough of their country to come and study here. Last but not least…
#5) This is YOUR DECISION! Pressure from the school, family, or friends to do what they may think is best for you, should not be the deciding factor. Like many major moves in life, you have to make up your mind how you want to spend this particular season of your life. One thing I believe is that when and if you make a mistake, you can always deal with it better by knowing that it was the choice that you made!

LIHC Dragon’s View from my apartment in Lima

I hope my account has been insightful and has made your day just a little better!

Lake Umayo, Sillustani, Ancient burial grounds just outside of Puno

Love, Peace, & Blessings

Jeremy J. Kirby
Universidad San Ignacio Loyola (USIL)
Lima, Peru