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by Hannah Nelson
Months ago, in September, I decided to study abroad during the upcoming semester. I signed the papers, made the announcement, bought my flight, then...waited. Now, after packing my suitcase, navigating the 4 connecting flights, and saying a bittersweet goodbye to friends and family, I am officially living in Granada! It has been, in every way, a "first" week. The first time meeting my host mom, the first time getting lost while walking the cobblestone streets of this new city (and later the first time getting help from some very kind locals), the first time fumbling through a call home on a handful of different social media sites. I have every expectation that there will be more "firsts" during my weeks and months here, but I'm starting to realize that's the point. Call it anxiety, uncertainty, or doubt, but what I was overwhelmingly feeling before coming to Granada was fear. What if native Spanish speakers just roll their eyes at my accent? What if I spend the whole semester homesick? What if I don't make any lasting friendships? These are all valid fears that I continue to face on a daily basis but I am beginning to grow more comfortable with the unknown that each day brings and I can anticipate being challenged by these “firsts.” Part of studying abroad is adjusting to a new place, and while this process can be tiring and taxing, I’m enjoying these first steps towards making a new home...and above all I’m glad that the waiting is over!
Now that we are a few weeks into the program, classes have begun, the temperature has dropped a few degrees, and I have started to enter a new phase of adjustment. Whereas as first I needed to get comfortable with my new bedroom, new walking routes, and a new daily schedule, I'm now starting to experience the deeper shift that comes from this sort of cultural transition. At first, after arriving in a new culture everything feels exciting, and the novelty of this new culture sparks curiosity and interest.
For me, everything from the ceramic tile street signs to the fountains flowing in the city plazas was exciting, new, and just so different. Now a few weeks later, that stage is starting to fade and I'm entering the into some deeper adjustment. When you spend time living in a new place, your focus starts to shift to the differences between this new culture and you home culture, and internal conflicts inevitably arise. With the first weeks of novelty now wearing off, the new challenge is to be patient in the slow shift away from all things comfortable and familiar and adapting to those unfamiliar and unknown cultural customs and ideas. On top of adjusting to new foods, new schedules, and a new city, I’ve also been challenged to adjust to new classes, new expectations from my professors, and new academic standards. It seems obvious that going abroad as part of an academic program would involve these sorts of adjustments, but it’s surprised me how different it has felt to enter the classroom in my program center and navigate the new and somewhat different expectations professors have for me here in comparison to back home on campus.
As the weeks go on I will do my best to be patient with the adjustment process--culturally and academically--and embrace the opportunity I have been given to bring my learning abroad into this new context even if my homework assignments are unfamiliar or the teaching style is different. After all, I’m conscious of the privilege I have to be studying abroad in a city as beautiful and historic as Granada, and this adjustment process is another learning opportunity that I can learn from and grow from.
The semester wrapped up just a few days ago, and with the whirlwind of finals behind me I’m able to put together some final reflections. It’s so true that for all the highs and lows and in-betweens, this experience has been an important part of my growth as a student, as a world citizen, and as an individual. In the weeks and months to come, I'm eager and I'm curious to see what reflections and reactions unfold, but for the time being I can share some thoughts on my learning these past months:
1. Before coming abroad I think it's easy to imagine that a stress-free semester awaits. While this may be true for some, it was not my experience, and that's ok. In fact, I think it's actually an important lesson to learn that no matter your context, there is always something, something to worry about. But, what's important is how we handle those feelings and how we acknowledge them without getting lost in them.
2. This semester my language skills have definitely improved and I feel more comfortable in Spanish language contexts than when the semester began. At the same time, though, I still don't understand some words or I miss the meaning of colloquial phrases, and I don't think that will never totally go away -- I'll always need to fill in the gaps as best I can. It's humbling to realize the hard work that language-learning demands, but the process of improving my Spanish has taught me to be more comfortable with the unknowns that lie in those unfamiliar colloquial phrases or thick accents. At first I would get caught up in the things I didn't understand, but now I'm more comfortable letting go of the few things I don't understand so that I can focus on what I do. And most importantly, after this semester I have these language skills as a means of connection with whole new communities that I’m able to connect with going forward.
3. This experience has been a lesson in having patience in the process. I've journaled on this topic on my own from time to time and it has felt like an important theme of this semester. At times I didn't know how I was supposed to be learning/feeling/changing but I was reminded that part of this process is not knowing yet. While each day I might not have known how I was supposed to be learning/feeling/changing, when I string them all together from this side of the calendar I can gain a greater appreciation for this whole big process
4. And lastly, a stolen reflection from a good friend: I value permanence. I'm abundantly grateful for the opportunity to have lived and learned in such a picturesque, colorful, and culturally rich place, but the heartbeat of home just gets stronger. I miss my roots and it's only by coming here and spending such an extended period of time away from home that I could have learned just to what extent I value permanence. This lesson will guide me as I make plans for the immediate and distant future, but as I build a life with permanence my experiences in Granada will also remain with me permanently and preciously.