Who: Ivana; Alberta, Canada
When: January-May 2015
Where: Universidad de Granada, Spain – Studying Spanish language and culture
What made you decide that you wanted to participate in a student exchange?
Learning Spanish in junior high, high school, and university was a great starting point, but I knew I had to make an extra effort in order to achieve the level of proficiency I was after. This meant immersing myself in the language as well as the culture. I was sold the minute I heard about the Granada exchange program.
How did you choose where you wanted to spend your semester/time abroad?
The only choices I really had which would allow for credit transfer to my home university were Guadalajara, Mexico or Granada, Spain. I had been to Spain before and loved it. A quick Google search revealed that Granada was exactly the kind of place I wanted to be: full of history, tailored to the student lifestyle, and an international airport relatively close by to make travel within Europe a breeze.
Before leaving, what were your expectations for this experience?
I expected, above all, that my Spanish would improve in leaps and bounds. I hoped to befriend locals as well as other international students. I expected that this experience – my first living on my own – would foster my independence.
What were your first thoughts upon arrival at your new campus?
Wow, there are a LOT of Americans here. Friends back home who’d done the program told me that my classes would be full of Americans. Nevertheless, I expected to see a little more variety, but there were only a few Europeans in my classes and the only Canadians were two other girls from my university. Also, the Americans already all seemed to know each other. Turns out their universities were a lot more organized than mine. These people had met before classes even started. I felt like a little bit of an outsider, to be honest, but making friends was effortless.
Also, the Centro de Lenguas Modernas campus of the Universidad de Granada is suuuuuuper small. Like, 20 classrooms and a courtyard small. I’m used to a seeing thousands of unfamiliar faces everyday and booking it across campus to make it to class on time.
What were some hurdles that you had to overcome/how did you do it?
I actually experienced a traveller’s worst nightmare abroad. I had to have a minor surgery near the start of my trip. I chose to stay in Spain and pay for it out of pocket rather than go back home as my insurance company suggested because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to come back to Spain once it was done. This was absolutely the right call. I would have missed out on the best five months of my life had I chosen to save the thousand euros that the surgery cost me and go home. Recovery was a bit of a pain, but I don’t regret the decision at all.
Another minor hurdle was that my confidence took a major hit during my first two weeks in Granada. I thought I knew Spanish pretty well. Little did I know that the andaluz accent would throw me for a loop. It took time to train my ear to this strange new dialect, but I soon learned to understand it and even grew fond of the characteristic dropped “s”.
Did you notice any major differences between studying at your home country and your host country?
In terms of workload, my classes in Spain required maybe an hour a day of studying/completing assignments. The exams were very straightforward and there was only one major assignment in each class, if that. I like to think that going out for tapas and socialising with locals was my homework – it helped my Spanish more than sitting in class did!
What are some of your favourite memories from your time abroad?
Anytime the language barrier made us laugh. One night, my friend Raquel and I went out for tapas with my now boyfriend, Joaquín. I had just been to Paris so I was raving about the macarons, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to say “macarons” in Spanish, so I went with “macarones”. Long story short, Raquel and I go on and on about all the different flavours of macarons we’ve tried – strawberry, blueberry, Earl Grey – while Joaquín just stares at us, mortified. Turns out “macarrones” is the Spanish word for macaroni. He thought we were talking about pasta!
Our questionable dietary choices when we were on weekend trips is something that never fails to make me wonder, “What were we thinking?!” We had no problem spending money on plane tickets, but when we got to wherever we were going, our poor college student meals consisted of baked beans and fried eggs. Everyday. Sometimes multiple times a day. (Still worth it.)
Has this experience at all changed the way in which you view yourself/other cultures?
I like to think I’ve always been very accepting of other cultures being an immigrant myself and having lived in a very diverse city, so I wouldn’t say it changed the way I viewed other cultures. That said, I did learn to be patient when confronted with cultural practices I wasn’t used to.
Did you travel much whilst you were abroad?
Yes! I visited about seven different countries in six months.
If so, did this travel enhance your experience? Why/why not?
Yes and no. Living in western Canada is fantastic in many ways, but it sucks for travel. Being able to travel two hours by plane and land in a completely different culture was incredible. I’m glad I saw places that I’ve always wanted to see like Paris and Rome, but I wish I would’ve spent more time in Spain. My experience of the country wasn’t as comprehensive as it could have been.
How did this experience change you?
Before my exchange, I always thought I could comfortably spend my whole life in my hometown. I probably still could. But I don’t want to. I’m now certain that I want to spend many more years in Spain and abroad. Before Granada, I was fairly sure of my plans after university. Now, several other doors have opened up for me and I don’t know which path to take. I used to have this mental timeline that dictated when I should be accomplishing certain life goals. I’ve since scrapped that idea, aware that my 20s are a time for exploring my independence and the opportunities that come with it. As cliché as it sounds, I’m focusing more on the journey than the destination.
Would you recommend other people participate in a student exchange?
Yes. It’s the absolute best thing you could possibly do to make four challenging years a lot more enjoyable.
If so, what is your top reason for why people should study abroad?
Living abroad, though you might not realise it at the time, will make you an independent person. You might think you’re pretty independent now, but your skills will be tested when you and your friend get separated at the Paris metro station in the wee hours of the night and neither of you speak French, or when you’re stuck in a hotel for a week because it’s holiday season and you can’t find a place to live, and when you do finally find a place your landlord speaks a mile a minute and doesn’t know a word of English, or when you can’t for the life of you find a jar of peanut butter in the entire city. After facing all that and much more, any challenges you confront back home seem much more surmountable. You’re prepared to take on whatever the world might throw at you.
To view other Student Abroad stories like Ivana’s be sure to check out the Student Abroad Series.