5 Reasons Why Studying Abroad Makes You A Better Person

  1. You Forge Local Relationships

Oh, María. That’s how I start many of my stories about my Spanish host mother. María was the best. She was a chubby, 68, year-old Salamanca native who had hosted students for 30 years, and made my study abroad experience 100 times better. We would huddle around my computer to watch Barcelona soccer matches, she would cook me paella every Sunday, and we would spend dinnertime joking around, watching terrible Spanish television, and talking about our days. When I would come home for a midnight snack, which was more like a 5-6am snack, María started calling me “The Ghost” and asking if “The Ghost” had visited the night before to raid our refrigerator.

Something wonderful about study abroad is that you have time to develop local relationships, whether they’re with your host family, roommate/flat-mate, or other students. No person I met on a weekend or week-long trip has ever impacted me as much as María did with her kindness and fun home atmosphere. She taught me to be more blunt and reinforced me to shamelessly laugh at myself, whenever possible.

  1. Find Local Gems

Let’s just say Trip Advisor only goes so far. Yes, it will give you the best restaurants, destinations, etc., but sometimes you don’t want the “best” experience, you want a genuine one. My favorite spots in Salamanca were the ones I made my own, like the coffee shop I would go to after class to chat with Beatriz, who would give my friend Ian and I advice, or the Erasmus Bar where my team and I would play trivia every Wednesday (we won thrice, I might add). None of those places would make a website because they were unspectacular at face value, until you made a memory in them.

A book fair came to Salamanca, which was a ton of fun to walk through
A book fair came to Salamanca, which was a ton of fun to walk through
  1. You live outside your comfort zone

Some say that growth comes from discomfort, which I agree with 100%. Growing as a person means exposing yourself to new experiences, feelings, and situations that lie outside of the status quo. The wonderful thing about study abroad is that you are uncomfortable all the time, so by default you’re growing all the time. Whether you’re navigating a new country in a new language, battling your way through classes, meeting new people, missing old people, or finding your niche in your new home, study abroad is difficult at times, and it SHOULD BE. If everything has a shiny exterior and you never come across a meaningful challenge, you miss the depth that leads to growth. There was one weekend, pretty early into my study abroad experience, where the eight people I knew were out of town, and I almost went Jack Nicholson-style The Shining on everyone due to cabin fever. That experience prompted me to be more proactive, but also helped me learn how to be alone and made me a better person.

  1. You learn street smarts AND book smarts

First of all, when you’re studying abroad, you’re ideally doing some studying. Wow, novel concept here, I know.

While I was in Spain, I took Portuguese classes, a class on the history of the Jews in Spain, a class on Spanish literature, and the History of Philosophy, of which I learned a lot, to the point where I still have trouble calling philosophers by their English names. Aristotle or Aristoteles? I don’t know either…

But, moreover, you also learn street smarts. You learn the skills necessary to navigate uncomfortable situations (cough, exactly what I mentioned in the last reason, cough). I had my passport stolen my first night in Morocco, which makes most problems a cakewalk when I face them now. At least I’m not in a foreign country and speak none of the national languages desperately trying to find a way home…

  1. You have the opportunity to travel and live in the world.

Now, in case you were worried, I’m not advocating for a study abroad trip with no travel when I mentioned finding local gems and forging local relationships. I had a blast visiting other places in Europe while I was abroad and have many friends whose travel stories are mind-blowing. What I am advocating for is for you to soak it up when you’re out there. This is usually a once in a lifetime opportunity, make sure you leave a different person than when you entered.

Taking in the beach in Tangier, Morocco
Taking in the beach in Tangier, Morocco

-Max Spiro, Study Abroad Assistant

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Maximizing Your Happiness Abroad

I recently read a fascinating article on how to maximize your happiness (You can click here for the article). Essentially, the article reports that scientists have found the quest for happiness comes through experience, rather than material gains. In essence, we are happier when we DO more rather than OWN more.

Now, how does this relate to study abroad?

Max Munich
Visiting Munich, Germany, where my high school friend was studying for the year

Studying and living abroad is an incredible experience by itself, and an investment worth making. Studies have shown that study abroad returnees report having higher confidence, experience better job placement, gained career interest from the experience, and much more (see one of many reports here). So, naturally, my first bit of advice for budgeting is to budget to study abroad, if you haven’t already. I highly doubt you’ll regret the experience.

So now you’re abroad. How do you make sure that your money is going to good use? Naturally, all college students have different budgets. Some can afford to live lavishly, others have to conserve their money very tightly. For those who are watching their purse strings a little more closely, here are a couple pointers that I found that really enriched my study abroad experience.

  1. BILLY MAYS HERE, I WANT TO MAKE SURE YOU GET SAVINGS, SAVINGS, SAVINGS!!!

I’m so sorry, I couldn’t help the infomercial joke. But seriously, know your exchange rate before you leave home and how much you can or want to spend. Cost of living could significantly increase or decrease abroad, so save everything you can before you go. I worked 3 part-time jobs the summer before I went abroad to help pay for it. Believe me, you’ll want every penny, and you can always do whatever you “missed out” on when you come home.

2013-10-25 08.06.49
Can you see the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona when you’re in Denver? No, no you can’t.
  1. Plan a list of adventures you would like to do during your time abroad

Anticipating and planning adventures is probably one of the most exciting things on the planet. Seriously, I have published a list of all the things I want to do in my life online (my bucket list), because I have way too much fun with this stuff. Know what you might want to do while you’re living abroad, whether that be backpacking Patagonia, attending a England-New Zealand rugby match at Wembley Stadium in London, going on a SCUBA diving trip along the Great Barrier Reef, walking the Camino de Santiago, or hiking Mount Kilimanjaro (I have friends who did all of these things). They knew they wanted to DO something special while they were abroad, and budgeted accordingly.

I planned to visit a Norwegian friend over Christmas before I left for abroad and got to explore the fjords
I planned to visit a Norwegian friend over Christmas before I left for abroad and got to explore the fjords
  1. Find atypical adventures

What I mean by this is that hopefully, at some point in your life, you’ll have the opportunity to be a tourist. When will you have the opportunity to LIVE abroad and have access to the little-known nooks and crannies of your continent? For me, this meant when I traveled, I wanted to go to atypical places. So, rather than see the Eiffel Tower and taking a picture of my finger touching the top of the Louvre’s pyramid in Paris, *cough* boring and cliché *cough*, I went to Croatia, cliff jumped in the Adriatic Sea, shared a 50cc scooter with my friend and travel buddy, Garret, and visited the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site Plitvice National Park. I DID something out of the ordinary, and it was the best traveling I did abroad.

It actually is that breathtakingly beautiful
Plitvice actually is that breathtakingly beautiful
  1. Have an it’s-time-for-a-ridiculous-unforeseen-adventure fund

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that good things just happen around you. My friends and family call it “Spiro Luck”, because I have the uncanny ability to get a good break when I need it most. Many people refuse to play games with me anymore because of “Spiro Luck”, and perhaps my penchant for excessively celebrating after winning…

Back to my point, one of the things I found when I was abroad was that opportunities presented themselves, so plan for the unexpected. One of the craziest experiences I had while abroad was that I got to attend the Clasico, the biannual soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona in Barcelona. I planned to be in the city for the match and to experience the atmosphere, but getting tickets were nigh impossible. That was until a miracle happened. A member of my travel group was accidentally given two tickets instead of one, and I got to go with him for a half-priced, nose-bleed ticket. Without having my it’s-time-for-a-ridiculous-unforeseen-adventure fund, I couldn’t have gone. Being at that game, where the glorious Barcelona won 2-1, was one of the most incredible experiences I had abroad. I still have to pinch myself to remember that it was real. Remember to have a little something to draw on if there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You won’t regret DOING it.

Me after the Barcelona, Real Madrid match in Barcelona
Me after the Barcelona, Real Madrid match in Barcelona
  1. Find local adventures that are free, or at least cheap

Some of my best memories from studying abroad are those that didn’t cost me a dime. In my first week in Salamanca, Spain, I joined the local Ultimate Frisbee team, where I met many of my local friends from abroad, and had a fantastic, fun time practicing every Tuesday and Thursday. I played pick-up soccer every weekend and explored the culture of Salamanca. I jammed with a three good friends on the steps of the cathedral in Salamanca and got a crowd of other students to listen. I took the bus into Madrid and spent the day visiting the modern art museum, then walked around the city for hours. I took the train to Toledo for a day, just because I could. While not as eye-popping as the travel stories, they were the ones that truly defined my study abroad experience. What I DID was worth spending money on, unquestionably, and I didn’t need to always break the bank to make a lasting memory.

Goofing around the Royal Palace of Madrid, all for the price of a bus ticket
Goofing around the Royal Palace of Madrid, all for the price of a bus ticket

-Max Spiro, Study Abroad Assitant

When I Came To Spain, And I Saw People Partying ON CHRISTMAS EVE, I Thought To Myself…

Where I’m from, the only places open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are churches, movie theaters and Chinese restaurants. My upbringing in suburban New England has foolishly duped me into thinking this fact is a universal truth; that Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue must close as to not disrupt Kris Kringle on his circumterrestrial route and that there is simply nothing else to do on December 24th and 25th other than stay in, absorb your caloric intake for the week in mere hours, and watch a Christmas Story on TNT, of course.

Well, after spending the holidays in Spain I have come to realize that all of that is a big sham, a mountebankery, a flimflam if you will. And, Spaniards being Spaniards, Christmas Eve is one of the biggest party nights of the year, naturally.

I think this sentiment and my experience on Christmas Eve are best expressed in (butchered) holiday verse:

While listening to an assortment of Spanish club jamz, there arose such a clatter; I sprang to the balcón to see what was the matter.

 When, what to my wondering eyes should appear? A street full of Spaniards, like it was any other day of the year.

Translated from the tongue of “Holiday Cheer,” shortly after I finished a shockingly delicious, self-prepared dinner (yeah Betty Crocker, I see you) I peered outside of the apartment I was in only to discover everyone and their Santa-hat-wearing brother was out and about tossing back kalimotxo like it was a Thursday in October.

Apparently this was nothing to write home about for the rest of the folks I was with, but to me it was about the equivalent of rolling out of bed any given day and finding Pat Sajak in the kitchen making pancakes. It’s taking a normal, average day, then add something completely atypical and extraordinary to it – say Mr. Sajak flipping some ‘jacks like it ain’t no thang, or in this case, streets bustling with Spaniards at 4am. The latter is not an uncommon occurrence in the least, but oh yeah IT’S 4AM ON CHRISTMAS EVE, AREN’T YOU PEOPLE SUPPOSED TO BE DREAMING OF SUGARPLUM FAIRIES SOMEWHERE!?

The truly baffling notion to me was that it wasn’t just one street or one establishment, it was everywhere. Everywhere I went it was packed – packed with Santa Claus impostors and candy cane wielding folks all looking to have a good time holiday style. I think this shot says it all:

The big guy can have fun too, right?
The big guy can have fun too, right?

This picture has everything: Papa Noel, a crowd of people, and to top it off, a scantily clad dancer in the background. If that doesn’t scream Christmas, I don’t know what does.

However, after having some time to mull it over, the initial level of surprise in regards to this phenomenon has greatly diminished in my mind and has now reached the point to where it is almost infinitesimal. Everything about living, studying and merely existing in another country seems surreal, holidays being one the paradigms of this concept and Christmas being the icing on the Pat Sajak-made (pan)cake. Very few things here are exactly how they are in the States, so why should holidays be any different?

The danger of this situation comes when many foreigners often times feel robbed of their own, in this case American, traditions and values. However, I think a more appropriate phrasing is to not feel robbed of your traditions, rather added on to. There’s no need to get angry that people go out until the witching hour on Christmas, nor that most stores are closed during the seemingly vital business hours that are siesta, just take it as it is and go with it. And I may have missed out on Labor Day, Halloween and quite a bit of election coverage, but I did get a long weekend at the beginning of December, got to celebrate New Years two weeks early with 50,000 other students, and a day off from school in November for a continent-wide strike. I think I can live with that. Not to mention the day all North Americans can all agree on anything, let alone a pre-arranged day to peacefully vent political and social frustrations, is the day Chancellor Coombe does the robot at commencement.

So, while Christmas was certainly unconventional by my definitions, it’s all a part of this whacky, flimflam-filled, surreal experience called studying abroad. My advice would be to just enjoy it as much as you can, try to learn something and wave to Pat Sajak along the way.

— Quincy Snowdon, DUSA Blogger

An Olfactory Tour of Salamanca, Spain

Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. Ok, that might not be entirely true as I am basing my science off of an Old Spice commercial from 2008, but I deeply and vehemently believe it. I also believe it is the single most overlooked aspect of any study abroad experience, however one of the most influential, important and telling of daily life.

And while I realize it is just about impossible to effectively describe a scent in words, and it is one of those things that “just doesn’t translate” (a concept I am becoming all too familiar with), I’d like to take a stab – just for all those underprivileged smells out there. Below is a 10 (7) stop olfactory tour of Salamanca, Spain based on my daily walk to class. Before you begin, please be sure to blow your nose and prepare your olfactory bulbs for a transcendent experience to the pungent, cobblestone streets of Europe.

1.) Home stay – I awake every morning to a somewhat oxymoronic slurry of smells, those being cigarettes and freshly cleaned linens and clothing. My host mom is a smoker, and also an obsessive cleaner, hence the  confusing combination of Chesterfields and Downy that greets me every day.

 Scented candle fragrance: Nicotine Dreams

2.)Kebab La Via – Directly under my apartment is an exquisite establishment that oozes greasy, meaty splendor. Kebab La Via, sells what in Spain are referred to as Kebabs, which are essentially just Greek gyros on steroids. The workers there periodically slice off tender, perfectly cooked slices of lamb that could make even the most dehydrated person’s mouth turn into a saliva tsunami.

Scented candle fragrance: Slow-roasted Splendiferousness

Kebab La Via

3.) Cigarettes

4.) La Tahona de la Abuela – The next stop on my journey, just might be the best part of my day. Eyeing it across the street my eyes glaze over and my mind is immediately void of all thought save the otherworldly aroma about to cross my path. With unrelenting fervor, like a child waiting to feverishly tear open that long-awaited present on Christmas morning, I dart across the street and stand for 5-10 seconds giving the largest, most satisfying inhale this side of the Iberian peninsula. The scent is a mixture of strudels, pastries, cakes and any other Willy Wonka-esque item your mind can conjure up – striking a poignant balance between sugar-plum dreams and sugar-drenched reality.

Scented candle fragrance: Confectionary Ecstasy

La Tahona de la Abuela

5.) Cigarettes

6.) Garbage – One of the most unexpectedly rank parts about this walk and I think Europe in general is that you can go from being subjected to the sugar-laced bliss described above to seconds later being subjected to a stench that seems to have come out of the armpit of Satan himself. I don’t know where these foul molecules of air come from, but it often results in a nasal invasion that is something between a can of Starkist that has been left out in the sun for a week and the wrong end of a dog a few hours after it has gotten a hold of an entire sheet of brownies.

 Scented candle fragrance: Sanitary Sensations

7.) La Plaza Mayor- This really is a roll of the dice any given day – could be exceptionally good, or could be extremely, horribly, atrociously bad. You could be fortunate enough to get a whiff of the tortilla someone is hastily enjoying, or Karma could be exceptionally against you that day and you could wind up with an unexpected inhale of pure gas from the exhaust of a Mahou truck plowing through in the early morning, or the oh-so-unfortunate fragrance of someone’s regurgitated paella from a recent walk of shame. Like I said, roll of the dice.

Scented candle fragrance: Sugar & Spice…And Everything in between

8.)Cigarettes

9.)Rua mayor – This street is a somewhat gruesome assault on the senses, although I would have to qualify and say it is a meticulously planned and calculated ground attack…as opposed to the firestorm air raid that I think is often associated with that phrase. There is always a slew of stank brooding, from the delectable tapas, to cigarette smoke (of course), to the general stench of human existence on an 85 degree day. This is the final stretch of my walk, which is fitting to say the least, as it is a true snapshot of the aromatic Spanish lifestyle.

Scented candle fragrance: Essence of Salamanca

Rua Mayor

10.) Palacio de Anaya (school) – My final destination produces an aromatic aura that is a fitting end to the daily thrill ride for my battered and beaten nasal cavity. The final scent comes compliments of the actual classrooms, these halls reek of academia in the most traditional sense of the word; decades-old creaking desks, combined with stressed and anxiety-filled students produce an oddly satisfying musk that exudes intelligence, must and restlessness. The only description I can conjure up is that they are redolent of how I imagine the library of some great philosopher/mathematician would smell as they frantically put quill to scroll.

 Scented candle fragrance: Archimedes’ study

Addendums: (In no particular order, but bound to be encountered at some point).

-Jamón – I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some sort of cured meat on the list. Although, the very fact that it is so heavily salted and cured doesn’t lend itself to a very distinct smell…just a sort of muted, fleshy scent. The sight is really more jarring than the odor.

Jamón

-Perfume – It’s guaranteed you’ll get at least one blast from some dolled-up Spaniard along the way.

-Exhaust – As anyone who has lived in any-sized city can attest, it is a victory if you make it to your destination without being doused in a murky cloud of CO.

-…..Cigarettes….one last time.

That is pretty much that. As I stated in the introduction, I realize it is nearly impossible to fully convey the aromas of a place without actually being there, but hopefully this list gives an inkling as to what any given nose goes through on a daily basis. And although not all of the descriptions above necessarily please the holes between my eyes, I wouldn’t change a thing about it, because it is this giant melting pot of odds and ends that make up the experience and make up the identity that is Salamanca. So the next time you’re walking around wherever you are, stop, pause and take a nice, long, sustained whiff. As much as you and your nose may hate to admit it, that’s what you’ll remember when you are back in the good old Sturm wanting to smack your head against your desk – at least, that’s what Old Spice says.

–Quincy Snowdon, DUSA Blogger

Passports, Puerility and (Lack of) Preparation: How to (un)successfully prepare to study abroad

Image of a U.S. visa.
Courtesy of Google Images.

“Congratulations! I am happy to inform you that you have been officially accepted into ISA’s Individualized Studies With Spaniards Year 3 2012/2013 program at the University of Salamanca in Salamanca, Spain.”

Those are the now (in)famous first words that I heard alerting me that I would be spending 10 months abroad. With them came a frenzied wave of excitement, a pinch of trepidation, and dozens of high-fives, hugs and “That’s going to be so awesome! That’ll be an amazing experience!” facebook posts.

Like most of my friends, I was ecstatic with the thrilling opportunity set before me. However, that initial giddiness subsided after a day or two, and after a brief scan of the rest of my acceptance letter, which included quite a few “as soon as possibles,” I continued on with my life and nonchalantly thought nothing of the pressing deadlines before me…like only a 20-year-old could.

So, as thoughts of actually preparing to go to a foreign country cozily rested in the distant corners of my brain, days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. After a disturbing amount of time had passed, I finally broke my fast of abroad information and realized that I should probably send one of these ISA folks an e-mail – just to make sure everything is gravy.  Well it turned out gravy things were not, and screwed I sure was. In the middle of May, as finals started turning from specks on the horizon into precipices in front of me, I got hit with a firestorm of abroad paperwork – and it hit hard, very hard.

To break it down for you, I got absolutely slammed by all of the following (in order of realization):

  • My passport was due to expire in a month, so I needed to get it renewed. (Takes 6-8 weeks to process)
  • Realized I was going to have to go to the Consulate General of Spain in New York City to get my visa…which had no openings until July, and there is absolutely no way to expedite. (Takes 6-8 weeks to process)
  • Realized, “Oh wait, a safety net! ISA does this all for you for a fee!” Then realized I had to get a hefty packet of materials to Austin, Texas in two-and-a-half weeks, with miles of red tape and government bureaucracy to trudge through to get there. Yikes.
  • Realized I had to get a criminal background check for any state I’ve lived in over the past 10 years – Colorado and Connecticut.
  • Realized said background checks had to be stamped and signed by the Secretary of State for each state. (Takes 2-3 weeks to process)
  • Realized I had to get a physical scheduled with a doctor in Colorado…where I knew no doctors. (Earliest appointment was 10 days out)

I thought it was over. The fat lady had sung. The pigs had flown around the world and back. I was not going to Spain. This sucks. But, the tale does not end there…I am writing this blog after all. Sparing many details, I somehow, someway scraped and clawed my way to that ISA deadline and got my materials to Austin, Texas on time. It involved daily phone calls with my parents, dozens of light rail trips downtown, repetitive head banging on the steering wheels of friends cars, hundreds of dollars of expedite fees, and hours upon hours of restless anxiety. Needless to say, it was not exactly a mosey through a meadow on a spring morning, and I would not recommend it or wish it on anybody.

However, that two week experience, taught me my first two, and perhaps most important, lessons of my study abroad experience:

1.) Be prepared and organized, only bad things happen when you aren’t.

2.) Relax, breathe and know that things will eventually, somehow, by some miracle, work themselves out…usually.

Quincy Snowdon, DUSA Blogger