Year-long study abroad conundrum

If you are reading this, chances are you’re interested in studying abroad.  I am not here to preach why study abroad is ‘life changing,’ to convince you why it is ‘totally awesome,’ and to explain how much fun I had living abroad.  Chances are, if you’re reading this, we already have enough in common: we are seeking adventure, and we like to push the limits.   This year, I am studying abroad for two semesters in Salamanca, Spain.  It has been the best decision I have ever made, and the hardest choice I could have made. I will start by saying: it has not always the fantasy I thought it would be.

A year ago I made the decision to study abroad for 1 year.  Was that so crazy? Maybe.  Can I be honest?  When all my DU friends came back from their study abroad after a semester to celebrate New Year’s together, and I was by myself in middle-of-nowhever, Spain, all I wanted was to be back home, with them, back where life made sense.

I will not boast that this year has been “completely life changing.”  I am not going to tell you to “have no regrets.” I won’t remind you that “it’ll be over before you know it,” and I won’t encourage you to “appreciate every single second.”  Because sometimes watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” or seeing a sunrise is life changing.  And you will have some regrets, I guarantee it.  During the holidays, it will seem like the end will never come, and you will think you are ready to go home.  And some days, everything around you will be a constant reminder of how far removed you are from the place you call home and the people that you love.

Do not go abroad for a year to impress your high school friends.  Do not go abroad because you feel you need to get away from your family. Do not go abroad because you think it’s going to be one huge party.  I will tell you this: there are moments when studying abroad for a year is incredibly scary.  You will question if it is the right decision, and you will hate yourself some days for deciding to leave home behind. 

But wait! Before I scare you off, know this: you will never regret the decision as a whole.  When you come back and start second semester, a change occurs and you never even realized it, but the city you perhaps once thought was foreign and weird now feels like home.  Yes: most of your first semester friends have left, and you will miss them terribly.  Guess what? There’s plenty more friends to be made.  You will have traveled all first semester and now your wallet is empty.  But now, you’ll finally get to know your city like the back of your hand.  You will start to do things and go places you never even knew existed first semester.  With new friends and a new perspective, the cityscape changes.  And before you know it, you are incredibly happy and feel a sense of peace.  Then the month of May rolls around and you realize: wow, man, the end is near.  Now you hate yourself for deciding to come for a year, because how can you possibly say goodbye and end this chapter in your life?!

From living in Spain for two semesters, I have learned what the expressions “un pulpo en un garaje,” “no pasa nada,” and “ni fo, ni fa” really mean.  I have come to realize that I do not need my own closet and a Verizon cellphone to live a comfortable life.  Somewhere along the line, I made a home in a city that once felt foreign and strange.  I can describe to you the people I will pass on my walk home from school on weekday afternoons, and I know the best spot to watch the sunset over the Spanish countryside.  I know what cafe sells the cheapest and best empanadas, and I know how to navigate the trains between Salamanca and Madrid.  I learned to dance the Salsa with Puerto Ricans as the sun rose over the city of Salamanca, and I know the best place in this city to get cheap Chinese food. I am friends with the ‘camarero’ who works at my favorite tapas bar, and I can tell you why Spanish ham is a delicacy.  These have been my greatest accomplishments and the hardest challenges that I have faced this year. I do not think with just one semester that this would have happened.

Looking back, I left for a year to rediscover myself and figure out who I was.  What does that even mean?  I leave this city in a matter of days.  Have I really figured out “who I am?” I am not sure yet.  But I am sure of one thing: My only regret was having hesitations.  If this is what you decide to do, to study abroad for a year, go forward with confidence and without second guessing yourself.  I wish I could have done that. I wish I could have convinced myself in October that this was the right decision, because I cannot imagine only having had one semester here. 

Most days, I love the small Spanish city of Salamanca, but there are other days when I feel trapped and alone.  I have seen that traveling to new places and meeting new faces is incredibly liberating, and overwhelmingly intimidating.  And I understand that leaving and starting over is a grand adventure and the scariest step you can take.  Being away from home for 9 months is never easy.  And yet with one year I was able to really learn Spanish, I have been able to travel to 12 different countries, and I have made life-long friends: this makes all the heartache and growing pains worthwhile.  I will say it again: I do not think with just one semester that this would have happened.  

Studying abroad for a year is not for everybody. Ya gotta be tough and open to try new things and realize that YES, it will not always be easy.  Ruth Tam said it perfectly when she wrote: “Making a home out of all the places I’ve lived has been simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. Some days I delight in the fact that my soul is deposited in several pockets of the world. Other days it makes me feel empty. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to retrieve those parts of myself, or if they were meant to stay there, unbeknownst to all those who come after me”( excerpt from the essay “Home Is Not A Place”).  If you have the desire, and if you tell yourself you can do it, this will be the most incredible and liberating experience. And I promise you, at the end of the day: you will not regret it.

Kelsey Guziak, Salamanca Spain 2011-2012


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