Sink or Swim?

Deluge is one of my favorite words in the English language. “A severe flood; a heavy fall of rain; a great quantity of something arriving at the same time; to inundate or swamp.” Never has this word been more applicable than since arriving in Spain. In fact, the very first word I used to describe how I was feeling upon arriving at my señora’s house, after 24 hours of traveling, 2 hours of sleep, and 100+ degree heat, was ‘overwhelmed’. There is no gentle transition into the Spanish language or culture here, but rather, a deluge, and I was the limp doll thrown amok, unable to break the waves for a breath of air.

               For the first few weeks of the semester, maybe even the entire first month, if I was given the chance to trade the rest of my time in Spain for an immediate flight back to the US, I would’ve made that deal in a heartbeat. I struggled with the dissonance of not experiencing the honeymoon phase I was promised, adjusting to multiple unexpected housing changes, and the cultural chaos that comes with a long-term full immersion program. More than that, however, I struggled with feeling like an intruder without a real place of belonging. I came ready to disconnect from my life in the States in order to connect to life in Spain, but instead found myself isolated and insecure, ungrounded and fumbling.

               While there are plenty of stories of the dreaminess and adventure of studying abroad, living in Europe, and having one of the most formative, challenging, and exciting semesters of college (all of which is still true), I decided to instead impart some of the still-developing wisdom that I’ve gained when faced with a reality that didn’t quite align with expectations. Instead of being a critique on the institution of studying abroad, however, this is actually intended to show just how deeply impactful it can be, if you choose to let it.

  1. Be humble. I am a person that likes to have a lot of answers, and very few questions; this was one of the first things that was challenged in Spain. In fact, in most of my classes this semester, the two most frequently spoken words (aside from Mira and Fijaos) were “¿Qué significa…?” Acknowledging that I don’t know something is one of the most uncomfortable things for me to do, but letting my guard down and recognizing how much I still have yet to learn was one of the fastest paths to integration, belonging, and even enjoying my semester.
  2. Invest in your host family. It took three weeks for me to arrive at my final host family’s home, and by that point, I was wary and untrusting and had no desire to open myself to more strangers. I didn’t realize how quickly I would find myself in the presence of two of the greatest examples of love and hospitality that I have ever met. Around their dinner table I learned about everyday Spanish life, watched a lot of nightly weather reports, and truly understood what was meant by the presence and intentionality of Spanish community. By giving myself the permission to both know and be known, I found a second home, 4000 miles away from the first.
  3. Give yourself (and others) a LOT of grace. Studying abroad is difficult. No matter how much Spanish you took before your semester abroad, nor how prepared you feel before coming, everyone is in a new culture and new city, unsure of themselves and just looking to keep their head above water. Give yourself the grace to miss the ease of being home, to say a wrong conjugation in class once or 300 times, to not be okay and not necessarily be having the time of your life. Give others the grace to be stressed and lash out on accident, to not always be up for going out yet another night in a row, to have a different perspective than you. The beauty of a full immersion program is that your learning extends far beyond just the classroom walls; explore how much you can learn from yourself and from those around you.

At the point of writing this, with 11 days left in the semester, I’m thrilled to say the deluge has subsided, if only just a bit. While I’m confident it would take a lot more time for me to feel like I’m actually swimming above the waves, I am satisfied to be able to say I’m at least treading water. There is no one formula for how to survive studying abroad, and very few guarantees for what the semester will look like. If I’ve learned anything definite these last few months though, it’s that things will not go according to plan, reality does not always align with your expectations, and there is a lot of growth that happens here, whether or not you necessarily want it. While we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we react and how we allow it to affect us. So, no matter how the deluge hits, and it will hit, the choice to sink or swim is entirely your own.

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