The One Thing You MUST Do Before You Graduate…
By Jessica Cox, Spanish Major
If you’re anything like me, spending a semester abroad in a foreign country always seemed like an unreachable adventure. Sure it sounds like fun, but would I really be able to survive alone in a completely different culture? Well… here I am, almost three years later, ready to tell you that I did much more than survive. To say that I had “the experience of a lifetime” doesn’t even begin to do those three months justice. My semester abroad in Barcelona, Spain taught me how to be independent, resourceful and confident.
One of the best realizations I had during that semester was on a plane ride back to Barcelona after spending the weekend in Germany. I remember looking back on the weekend and thinking to myself, “Wow… did we really just navigate around Germany with only knowing one word in German?” (Of course it was danke, which surprisingly got us very far sometimes.) I went with one of my new friends I met in my program. We spent the weekend jumping from bus to bus, never 100% sure we were on the right one… but always seemed to end up where we had hoped. Sitting on that plane I began to experience the indescribable feeling of being completely self-reliant. If we could make our way to the Black Forest in Germany, there’s nothing we couldn’t do.
Once you start to travel, you will never want to stop. In Europe, it’s incredibly inexpensive and easy to fly or take a train to a different country. I remember having several conversations with my friends that sounded something like this: “So, where do you guys want to go this weekend? Paris? London? Rome?” It was that easy. Some flights were actually free! All you had to pay for was the tax… and be prepared to fly at 3AM. Anything to save money!
A semester abroad will introduce you to new cultures that you never could have imagined. You will begin to realize how exceptionally diverse people really are, and will start to appreciate them on a much greater level. One of my favorites things to do while visiting different countries was to simply sit and “people watch”. As you can imagine, the people in Italy have very different ways of physically expressing themselves than the people in Paris. These distinctive cultures made my semester nothing short of an eye opening adventure.
When diving into a new culture, you will most likely experience some degree of “culture shock”. The best advice I can give you is to do your research before you leave the United States. Learn about their values, beliefs, customs, and above all, how they communicate. There are many aspects of culture that you will be able to learn as you go… taste new foods, attend various festivities… but, communication is one aspect that you do NOT want to learn as you go. Chances are it will not end well. You’d be surprised at how easy what you consider to be polite can be interpreted as rude. Not possible you think? Imagine this: You are at a local bar in Barcelona and the waiter asks you what you’d like. In your best Spanish accent, you say, “Could I have a beer please?” When he brings it to you, you are quick to say, “Thank you”. Well… with just those few words, it is very possible that you have come across as superficial. By applying our norms of politeness to a completely different culture, you would immediately stand out as a foreigner. I had the misfortune of experiencing this first hand. It took me longer than I would have liked to figure out why I was not having very friendly interactions with many people. I was coming off as “fake”. To my surprise, it is considered the norm (or even polite!) to order a beer by simply saying, “Give me a beer”. Can you imagine? It still seems so rude to me! The differences in cross-cultural communication are endless. Much like this situation, you probably won’t even know you’re doing something wrong. The bottom line: if you’re looking to get everything out of your experience abroad, it would be in your best interest to not unintentionally offend every native you speak with! It seems trivial to say, but learn how they communicate. Verbally and physically!
It goes without saying that fully immersing yourself into a language is the most effective way to take your ability to the next level. When you find yourself holding up the line in a local coffee shop because you can’t find the words to place your order… you’d be surprised the amount of motivation you will have not to forget it the next time. The point is, if you have no other means of communication, you will learn the language. Remember, this is just another fun aspect of your adventure that will leave you feeling more capable than ever!
It only seems appropriate to leave you with the advice that my mother gave to me three years ago. After four very long months of not being able to decide if I was actually going to submit my application, my mother finally said to me, “Jessica, if you’re going to do it, just do it. Otherwise, stop talking about it!” You’re probably thinking that what she said was unsupportive; especially for a parent… but it was exactly what I needed to hear. This type of black and white, yes or no, made me realize that I couldn’t possibly pass up this opportunity! To her surprise, I turned in my application the next day. I am now here to tell you that this is truly an experience that you need to take advantage of. Look into it. Ask other students who have gone. Talk to an advisor. You won’t regret it! A semester abroad is undoubtedly the one thing you must do before you graduate.