The summer before my sophomore year I made a decision that might have been just as important as the decision that I made when I chose to attend Oberlin College. That summer, I was determined to study abroad. Besides going back and forth between my home city of Chicago and Oberlin, I had not done much traveling. Resources were always limited, and I could only rely on my comfort zone to keep me from making irrational decisions. That summer, however, I realized that it was time to explore, time to discover a world that I did not necessarily identify as home. This had been one of my dreams, and I figured that this was the perfect time to do it.
I decided to apply for Oberlin’s PRESHCO program (also known as El Programa de Estudios Hispánicos en Córdoba) because it is situated in Córdoba, Spain. The whole idea of spending time in Europe while practicing my Spanish was something I was eager to do. Since the program is affiliated with the college, most of my financial aid would transfer over--knowledge that made the application process a little easier knowing.
I was notified of my acceptance into the program almost a month later. This meant that for the first semester of my junior year--three and a half months--I was going to live in Cordoba, Spain. While reading the e-mail that included numerous details about what to expect next, there was a small knot of fear in my stomach. I was excited to visit Europe and to experience what life was like in a different university. I was about to go on an adventure into a completely different country, where exchange rates were probably high. And although I spoke Spanish, the dialect where I was going might be different from my own.
That small knot of nervousness is something that I carried with me until I arrived at JFK airport on my departure date. There I realized that I was not alone on this journey. Besides Oberlin, PRESHCO is affiliated with five other universities. In the waiting area, after identifying the five other amazing Oberlin students who were taking this adventure with me, I met and greeted other students who came from Smith, Wheaton, Colby, and Wellesley colleges. All had the same face of excitement.
Upon our arrival to Madrid, I realized that three months abroad would be almost no time to explore the many wonders that Spain had to offer. During the first week, our program gave us a general orientation trip to Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Salamanca, and many other great locations in Spain. After that week, my life in Cordoba commenced. While the initial meeting with my Spanish parents was mostly filled with simple introductory questions after the first two weeks, it seemed like the family bond was immediately forming before my eyes. I still recall the ongoing conversations with my host father about the politics in Spain, the numerous sevillana dance classes my PRESHCO classmates and I took, the flamenco dances, the hot days in “la plaza,” where many of us would desperately seek a cafe with wi-fi in order to finish our final exams. I can still picture the last minute trips my friends and I made outside of Spain. We saw the Coliseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and Big Ben in London.
These landmarks were not just markers of their country’s history, but also markers of my own history. I accomplished in three months many milestones I never thought to achieve. I practiced my writing and reading skills in Spanish in a country where I had to step out of my comfort zone to explore the everyday mysteries. I visited the locations I had marked on my bucket list 14 years ago.
But not everything about being abroad was picture perfect. I can still recall the numerous Skype calls I made to my mother telling her that although I was having fun and learning more about a new culture, I missed her and was counting down the days to go home. There were days when friends and I would be questioned about our identity. Our Spanish was seen as “different,” and my Latina identity often led people to quiz me about Latin American politics. Those instances, along with the numerous other events that took place while I was abroad, were learning experiences.
One cannot learn without first being questioned or asked to think. I embraced the experience because it helped me learn a lot more about myself. I found my voice, my interest in learning different languages, and my interest in teaching--all personal as well as familial accomplishments. I applied the same interests when registering for courses for the following spring semester at Oberlin. I took Spanish courses, shared my experiences with my tutees, applied the knowledge that I gained abroad to the themes that were of my history courses. I became more involved in student organizations and participated in more student led events. While three months felt like three fast hours, the day I arrived home I noticed I was a new person willing to take on tasks that were going to challenge me in positive ways. And it all started with a simple decision to study.