Charged with motivation-razing discouragement, this opinion was articulated by my college advisor the summer before my senior year. The ears it fell upon were receptive, searching for any pretext to avoid spending the next three months in the northern Spanish city of Oviedo. Life was good: law school around the corner, steady girlfriend, and the feeling that life’s next steps appeared obvious. Study abroad was an unnecessary deviation. I had never left the country and could not fathom a reason to do so. Money was tight and, most importantly, foreign language acquisition had long felt impossible; so why waste time and effort on the futile?
The answer to this question was that I had no choice. My degree stipulated a certain number of credits in a foreign language. For three years I had pretended this requirement had not existed and as a result of this protracted delusion, I sat before my advisor listening to him explain that the only way to graduate without an extra semester was to spend three months abroad. Worse still, only one program met the needs of my calendar and permitted a student with next-to-no language training: Oviedo. If I had to visit Spain, I wanted a city I had heard of. Why not Madrid, Seville, or Barcelona? “No,” my advisor affirmed, “it has to be Oviedo. Don’t worry though; study abroad won’t change your life. Just get it over with and you’ll come home ready to graduate and continue where you left off”.
In almost every sense, Oviedo proved to be the opposite of what I had expected. This was first felt as the plane descended to reveal green valleys and snow-covered peaks – far from the arid plains stereotyping their way through my mind alongside bullfighters, sangria, and flamenco dancers. My misconceptions were more apparent as, right from the beginning, the apathetic attitude with which I had greeted the trip was quickly melted by an open city and the generous people who inhabited it. This was augmented by the most surprising reality of the experience: Spanish came easily. Now, do not misunderstand what I am saying: learning the language required a lot of hard work, nightly headaches, and occasional frustration-born tears. However, that effort felt natural. I wanted to be part of the city; to participate in a world so different from my own; to comprehend as much as I could. All of this required motivation which, back in the US, had been squashed by what felt like insurmountable challenges. In Oviedo the challenges of learning Spanish paled in comparison to my enthusiasm. I wanted to learn Spanish and there was no better place to do so.
My college advisor was wrong. Not just because the experience brought a new language into my life and altered career plans, but thanks to Oviedo I have gotten to know the person who is most important in my life: me. Today I realize that the base emotion resting behind my resistance to study abroad was fear. I was afraid of facing a foreign land, leaving the comfortable existence I had set out, and being challenged in unimaginable ways. Unsurprisingly fear is also a big obstacle to learning a language. Being abroad forced me to confront and overcome these fears and the language followed naturally. Challenges are often like mirrors in that they force us to see ourselves, including the parts we do not like. I did not like how much I had let fear inhibit me and thanks to study abroad I not only learned how to admit this to myself, but I was also able to overcome those fears.
Whatever fears you may be facing, my advice is to not permit them to stop you from taking advantage of the opportunity: study abroad can indeed change your life. ¦