In the Fall of 2014, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to study abroad and travel across Europe. I didn’t even know what study abroad was until I began college. I thought it sounded like a really good opportunity for people, but I never thought I would actually be able to do it myself. That was the case until my sophomore year, when I met some girls from my university that had just returned from studying abroad in Granada, Spain with AIFS. They hosted a presentation where they showed us pictures and videos as well as answered all our questions.
That was the day I decided that I was going to study abroad with AIFS. I knew I needed to take advantage of that opportunity, because I would probably never have it again! I chose the AIFS program because I had heard so many wonderful things about it from AIFS alumni. It was the most affordable, and overall it just seemed like the best match for me. I knew Granada was rich in history, culture with a great central location to travel around Europe — all things I was looking for in a program!
On September 19, 2014, I hopped on my first long-distance plane ride to London. This was the day my life changed forever! My AIFS program fee included round trip flights and a 3-day stay in London. I absolutely loved London, but I was super excited to finally get to Granada and meet my host family.
I chose a homestay because I knew that I really wanted to immerse myself in the culture and language as much as possible. A homestay is truly the best way to do that. My host mom was a very active, sassy woman, and she always had tons of funny things to say. She has 4 children, all of whom have their own families and kids, except for her youngest son who also lived with us.
Although it took a little bit of adjusting, I quickly learned that choosing a homestay was one of the best decisions I could have made. It was stress-free because she cooked all of my meals and even did my laundry. This was a huge plus, because when you’re always on the run or traveling, you really don’t have much time for anything else! Through the homestay, I learned a lot about the Spanish culture, lifestyle, language, family system, food and even more. It’s been nearly two years, and we still stay in touch. In fact, I plan to visit her in a few months!
Granada is a beautiful city located in the south of Spain filled with rich history, life and people. I attended the University of Granada and took 5 classes, all of which transferred to my home university. My classes included: History of Art in Spain, Spanish Literature, Spanish Grammar, Islamic Culture in Spain and Speaking & Writing Skills.
My classes were really interesting. Not only was I taking all 5 classes in Spanish with Spanish professors that had strong accents, but their entire education system was very different. The professors had a different method of teaching than what I was used to here in the States. I was wonderfully pleased to find that my professors there placed a huge emphasis on actually learning the material, applying it to our lives and seeing how we could change the world with that information — rather than focusing on memorizing material and stressing out about exams and such. Another great thing about studying abroad was that I had the opportunity to actually visit places that I was learning about. We took many field trips in order to really immerse ourselves in the lessons. It was fun and helpful to really experience what I was learning about.
As much as I loved Granada, I was on a mission to travel not only around Spain but also all around Europe and even Africa! In total, I visited 8 countries and 18 cities in exactly 3 months, which is a pretty great accomplishment. Every place I visited was so unique, interesting and beautiful in its own way that it’s really hard to pick a favorite, so I’ll just mention the countries I went to: Britain, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Vatican City and Morocco.
Some of the things I got to cross off of my bucket list included visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, riding a camel in Morocco, visiting the Vatican, going up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, kayaking in Portugal, going to a soccer game and seeing a bullfight in Spain, eating pasta in Italy and the list goes on! I made so many great friends from all around the world and had so many wonderful experiences that I can’t even put it all into words.
I learned SO MUCH, not only about myself but also about the world, different cultures and the genuine kindness of others. All we ever hear about the rest of the world is the terrible things reported on the news. Bad things happen everywhere, but we can’t live in fear and shelter ourselves from the great things happening outside of our bubbles. I experienced firsthand the greatness and kind hearts of people in so many countries. I can’t tell you how many times I got lost in a foreign country, terrified of asking for help because I didn’t know their language. I learned quickly that this fear was silly. Random strangers on the street were so willing to help me every single time — giving directions and advice — for anything I needed!
Everywhere I looked, I knew I was surrounded by support. There was the sweet pharmacist whose daughter has the same medical condition that I have. She would text me when she had baked treats for her daughter, and I would stop by after class to pick one up. There were the employees at the Anne Theater in Amsterdam that somehow managed to find me a seat at the very last minute and even provided me with an iPad that had live English translations since the play was in Dutch. There was a young woman in Paris who stopped to warn me of pickpockets on the next block. She didn’t speak any English, but she somehow managed to convey that and even stayed to help me and my friend hide our bags in our coats. And of course, I will always be so grateful for my amazing program directors, Noelia and Edu. They were always so helpful and supportive. They went completely out of their way to help us with anything, whether it was with classes, weekend travels or personal issues.
Prior to my study abroad experience, I heard so many misconceptions like people in certain countries were rude or mean, that Americans are disliked and so on, but that could not be further from the truth. This experience truly opened my eyes to how many good people with open hearts and minds you can find in the world. Some may think that’s naïve of me, and perhaps it is a little bit, but I just think about all those opportunities and chance encounters I would have missed out on if I hadn’t taken the leap to step out of my comfort zone. We can’t let other people’s ideas or experiences influence our own, when we can go out and see the truth for ourselves!
The Spanish culture and lifestyle is much different than the American one I had grown accustomed to. I was so used to a fast-paced lifestyle of always having to rush, always having to be somewhere, always feeling pressure and societal expectations to succeed. When I got to Spain, all of that changed. I quickly learned that it is very unusual to eat on the go. I got very strange looks when I would eat my breakfast on the walk to school. Meals are a very special, social occasion in Spain. Everyone eats together and talks about their day.
I also learned that it’s very common to be late for social gatherings. Spanish people enjoy a more laid-back, worry-free lifestyle. They choose to go with the flow and not to stress out about schedules or life plans. They even take a few hours out of their day to eat and relax before going back to work! They have a saying that goes, “no pasa nada” which basically means “no worries, everything will be fine.” This saying really stuck with me even after returned. I learned to just accept what is and try not to worry about little things and common pressures in our American society. This is just one of the many life lessons I learned while traveling and living in Spain. You just can’t learn these things from a textbook. These are the unique lessons that come from life experiences.
I’m so grateful that I had such a wonderful opportunity and was able to really take advantage of everything that was available. It wasn’t always easy; it took a lot of hard work, strength and determination, but it was so worth it. I would do it again in a heartbeat!
After exactly 3 months, I began my journey back to the States. It was such a bittersweet feeling to leave all of people and places I had fallen in love with. I still remember that feeling I got when I landed at the airport. Although I could finally recognize shops and restaurants as well as signs written in English, everything felt unfamiliar to me. It was as though I no longer belonged in a place I’ve always called home. Ever since that day, I’ve been (im)patiently waiting for my next opportunity to travel.
It sounds super cheesy, but not a day goes by that I don’t think about my experience. I wish I could just go back and relive it all over again. It really changed me as a person and made me rethink my life goals, perspectives and future. I can’t wait to keep traveling, and now I finally have my chance!
On July 5, I flew back to Spain where I am now an au pair! This time I am living in Tarragona with a homestay family. Although it’s not the same as study abroad, I am excited to experience all the parts of the Spanish culture that I’ve missed. The food, the vibe, the people, the lifestyle, the attitude of “no pasa nada.” I definitely plan on visiting Granada at least once while I’m in Spain. I’m not sure what my plans are or what my future holds, but through study abroad, I’ve learned to embrace that uncertainty and truly enjoy every single moment I have!
This post was contributed by Yoana Guerra, who studied abroad with AIFS in Granada, Spain in 2014.