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Challenging Yourself Abroad

by Shaeffer Smith

Going into my semester abroad, my mind was full of dreamy thoughts of Europe, traveling and meeting new people. My semester has been full of amazing European experiences, awesome trips and so many cool people.

But I’m also in Spain. I forgot they speak a completely different language- a language I have taken for 14 years but somehow still didn’t know.

What did I get myself into?

When I arrived in Salamanca, I was a little overly confident in my Spanish skills. I did an exchange program in high school where I was immersed in the Spanish culture and language, but I didn’t realize I didn’t know as much as I thought. I thought I was fluent, but my friend told me I was actually terrible at Spanish when I came for the first time.

I chose to study in Spain because I love the culture, but to me, it’s important to learn another language for both professional and personal reasons. I was nervous to talk to my host family and waiters and shop owners at first. And a week into classes, I realized I was speaking more English than Spanish! I knew I had to make a strong effort to improve my fluency.

I decided to take a stab at an integrated class. This means that instead of taking classes in Spanish for international students, I would take a class at the actual University of Salamanca with Spanish students. When I told my host mother about this decision, she was shocked and worried for me. She said even students whose primary language is Spanish have a hard time in those classes, to which I responded, “I want to challenge myself so I can get better!”

She said, “Buena suerte.”

The first few days of class I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I was in a language class where I didn’t know the grammatical elements in English, let alone Spanish! I was nervous to talk to any other students in my class, so I kept to myself and hoped it would get better.

However, I found that every day I understood just a little bit better, and that I wasn’t as nervous to speak up. So I stuck with it. Now, I think it’s the best decision I’ve made. I absolutely love what I am learning which makes it even better. At first, I was nervous to be in a group for a project, but I ended up contributing a lot to the group and being independent like I would at school in the States.

Before I left for my semester in Salamanca, a lot of friends and family said “Remember to also study!” I think sometimes people have this idea that going abroad is a semester of partying or traveling, but it is really what you make of it. I knew I wanted to improve my Spanish drastically so I made the decision to challenge myself in my classes and in my daily life.

plaza mayor salamanca spain night lights family

Me and my family in Salamanca

These challenges have paid off, too! Just recently, my family from the United States came to Salamanca and met my host family. My parents speak zero Spanish, my siblings understand a little, and my host mother doesn’t speak any English, so I was their interpreter. For almost an hour, I was translating two different languages almost flawlessly. My family was surprised, and so was I! I didn’t even know I knew half of those words! But most importantly, my host mother noted that my Spanish had improved a lot. She told my family (through my interpretation) that at first, I barely said anything and I was scared, but now I’m speaking with a lot more confidence and fluidity.

It meant a lot to hear that from her, the one who was nervous for me going into a tough class! That was the moment I realized that the hard work I had been doing is paying off. I didn’t want to waste my semester by not learning any more Spanish, so by challenging myself to embrace the language fully, I can really see the difference it has made. Not only has it helped in communicating in my daily life, but it has also built up my self-confidence. I am showing myself what I can really do, and I’m very proud of myself!

puerta del sol madrid spain

Puerta de Sol in Madrid, my favorite city, where I have applied to intern this summer.

I encourage anyone going abroad to challenge themselves in embracing the language and culture, it really makes a difference. If you wanted everything to be the same, you would’ve stayed in the US, right?

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