by NORAH WALSH
Since June of this year, I’ve been living and studying in Bilbao, Spain, at the University of Deusto, and I cannot express the sheer amount of wonderful experiences I’ve had here. Whether inside the classroom, on excursions or simply just exploring Bilbao, I am so grateful that I was able to take advantage of this opportunity to study abroad.
I took classes during a summer session with several other University of Mary Washington students, as well as other students from the United States who hailed from other states such as Nebraska and Michigan. While taking three classes—one of which was taught by the lovely Professor María-Isabel Martínez-Mira—and attending excursions to cities such as Madrid, Toledo and San Sebastián, I was able to meet a lot of friends, and I’m looking forward to seeing them when I get back to the States.
Being away from my friends who are back in the States can be lonely, so I decided to reach out to some UMW students who are studying abroad to check in on their study abroad experiences.
Some of the people I interviewed were friends, some were classmates, but they were all fellow Eagles.
The importance of studying abroad
When asked about why studying abroad is important, many students highlighted the positives of being surrounded by a different culture, and in some cases a different language, too.
“Meeting new people who think completely differently or have a fresh outlook on certain ideas can prove beneficial to the sharing and adapting of new ways of thinking,” said Natalie Buchanan, a junior Spanish major studying abroad in Bilbao at the University of Deusto. “Studying abroad is also a great way to enhance personal independence and find a place in the world.”
Being able to study abroad during this period of our lives is so impactful, especially when your intention when studying abroad is to learn both inside and outside of the classroom. It is also a special experience because you’re constantly surrounded by other students who chose to study abroad for similar reasons.
“Being able to experience a new culture and everything that entails with fellow students and peers around your age is something that we will never have the opportunity to do again, and it is one of the coolest experiences to have,” said Nathan Francis, a junior political science major who studied abroad during the summer in Bilbao at the University of Deusto.
Additionally, the perks of studying abroad don’t stop at taking classes in a different country.
“There is so much to learn from a study abroad experience, and not just academically,” said Eden Shenal, a senior political science and Spanish double major who also spent the summer in Bilbao. “It pushes you to be self-reliant, adventurous, and brave in big and small ways. I learned so much every single day, and I know now that experience is going to stay with me for a very long time. Getting outside of your own cultural bubble to see how different parts of the world function and move can be so beneficial to your personal growth.”
Welcoming the unexpected while studying abroad
Before studying abroad, the Center for International Education at Mary Washington leads an information session, and one of the points they emphasize is the culture shock you may experience, especially at the beginning of your study abroad experience.
I would describe my culture shock more as cultural confusion, for there was nothing that was too different to my life back home that surprised me, but certain aspects made me pause and think for a bit. Basic tasks like going out to eat at a restaurant still confuse me, for I never know if my friends and I are allowed to sit down at whatever table we want, or if we have to wait for a server to tell us where to sit.
Similarly, other students also met unexpected experiences and cultural factors when they arrived in their respective countries. Positive and negative alike, studying abroad requires a certain level of adaptability, or else it can be an uncomfortable transition.
Kylie Jackson, a junior conservation biology major studying at the University of Otago in New Zealand, commented on what different cultures place importance on, as it can be quite different.
“Since I have been in New Zealand, I have had the amazing opportunity to see and feel what it’s like to live in a unified and conservation-driven country,” she said. “New Zealand has such a heart for community and passion for preserving its local wildlife which is absolutely incredible. I didn’t realize that these attributes were such core beliefs of this country.”
Other unexpected factors relate to basic needs, such as food.
“Something I did not expect to experience while abroad is the lack of available diverse vegan options,” said Callie Jordan, a senior political science and women, gender and sexuality studies double major studying at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland. “There is always plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free choices, but vegan foods are harder to come by and require more thoughtful planning.
Additionally, cultural habits relating to day-to-day activities are different while abroad.
“Another thing I have observed is shopping patterns,” said Jordan. “Practically everyone shops in person at independent stores, although there are a few big chains.”
I have also noticed this trend while in Spain, and one of the biggest adjustments for me was stores being completely closed on Sundays and in the middle of the afternoon. Here, there is definitely a larger importance placed upon rest, and the schedule that everyone follows echoes that sentiment.
Shenal reflected on how living abroad for an extended amount of time really makes you change your own personal habits.
“I was also surprised how much of the cultural rhythms of the city of Bilbao and its people became my own habits, as well,” they said. “I didn’t get hungry until 8 or 9, I was fine with walking 45 minutes somewhere, and I became a bit of a night owl! It was so unexpected to step into the Spanish circadian rhythm so easily.”
Their reasons to go abroad
Whether it be to foment their studies, expand their cultural perspectives or simply because the opportunity was too good to pass, everyone who studies abroad has some reason behind their decision to leave their home country.
In many cases, the countries people chose to study in tend to align with their interests.
“I chose to study abroad because I have a passion for traveling and learning about the cultures of new places,” said Jackson. “New Zealand has always captured my attention and it felt like a place that could culture all of my interests including hiking and pretty much anything outdoorsy, art, photography, and wildlife conservation.”
Furthermore, studying abroad is a unique opportunity to enhance your college years because it integrates your academics with cultural lessons, too.
“I love learning Spanish and developing my skills of listening, writing and communicating in a new language different from my own,” said Buchanan. “I was also curious, it’s an escape from the life I’ve grown up with to experience something new.”
Shenal spoke about their academic and personal reasons for traveling abroad.
“I decided to study abroad for my major, but also for a more personal reason,” they said. “Spain is part of my heritage, and none of my living family members had ever gotten to return to the country to see our hometowns and history. I wanted to study abroad to go see the country my family was from and connect with it.”
The hardest part
No new experience goes without a little bit of strife. Living in a new country, constantly adjusting to new patterns and schedules and not having your usual support group nearby can lead to a tough transition period.
Even though the Instagram posts about our travels may paint the experience as flawless, don’t let the filters fool you; being abroad is hard.
“I think the hardest part for me about living/studying abroad in Spain was the language barrier,” said Francis. “I took Spanish during high school and being a junior now, I remembered some of the important language aspects but definitely could not have a full-fledged conversation with the locals and that was sometimes very intimidating and discouraging.”
Being in a different country separates you from your family and friends through distance, but it also can make it harder for you to stay in touch with them, especially with a time difference.
“I think the two hardest parts about studying abroad is the time difference and the food,” said Grace Lefcourt, a junior American studies major studying at the University of Reading in Reading, England. “The time difference between Virginia and the UK is 5 hours, which may not seem like a major difference, but it’s really strange when I am finishing my day, and my parents back home are just going to work or eating lunch.”
Jordan also commented on feeling separated from events and milestones while she has been abroad. Many students struggle with only being able to connect with family through a screen, so knowing that our fellow classmates also share this sentiment can be comforting.
“The hardest part about studying abroad is missing things back home, like big family and life events,” said Jordan. “For example, in my first month away, my sister had her first baby, and I became an aunt on facetime. It’s sad when you miss big stuff and get homesick, but time here goes by so fast.”
Furthermore, food is always something you have to adjust to.
“When people say British food has no flavor, it really depends,” Lefcourt said. “If you get fish and chips, or a steak and ale pie, those can be really good. If you eat or make tacos, it will literally be ground beef with no seasoning, and maybe some vegetables with salt or pepper.”
All in all, the rewards of studying abroad far outweigh the struggles you may experience, no matter what you want to study.