Now that my study abroad experience has come to a close, I’ve really been thinking a lot about how much I’ve done in these four months. How much I’ve seen. How much I’ve been challenged. How much I’ve learned. And ultimately, how much I’ve grown.
I never in my life had thought I’d have the opportunity to see some of the things I’ve seen. Our first excursion included a trip to Chichén Itzá and our first cenote. After jumping into the cenote, I remember saying to the other students that I felt like I was in a picture I’d see on Pinterest. I was completely awe-struck. And ever since that day, I continued to be completely amazed by the jaw-dropping beauty of the Yucatan and the rest of Mexico. I constantly felt like it was all too good to be true. I lived for almost half a year in one of the most beautiful places in the WORLD. Growing up, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to experience all the things I experienced over these past four months.
It was eye opening to see not only what made the country beautiful, but what made it different as well. What I found particularly different, which I’ve discussed before, was the educational landscape. The environment at the university in Merida was much, much more laid-back than it is at UT. Getting a 100 on a homework assignment isn’t life or death. Students’ main goal isn’t scoring a higher grade on tests their classmates. For me at home, being a first-generation Hispanic student at a university where Hispanics make up only 17% of the student population and have only a 55% graduation rate, I’ve always prioritized doing not only my best, but better than everyone else. I’ve made it my ultimate goal to not be one of these statistics and to prove a point that I refuse to be defined by them. In the past, I have literally made myself sick by studying without sleeping and prioritizing homework over eating. I can’t even count the amount of times I had turned down hanging out with my friends in order to work on schoolwork. I thought I was making a better future for myself. But when I got to Mexico, I made a ton of friends at the university who taught me otherwise. At the beginning of the semester, they would invite me to go to the park to go see a soccer game and I’d tell them I better stay home and get homework done. “Ay Gina,” they’d tell me, “y si no lo haces? No pasa nada!” (“If you don’t do it, so what?!”) This idea was completely alien to me. Not doing my homework? Anarchy! Instead I’d tell them to give me an hour or two to finish and that I’d meet them wherever they were. I’d still do the work, but by going out and being with my friends, it kept me from obsessing over perfecting it. I started spending time with friends every day, playing soccer every night, I joined the women’s soccer team at the university, and continued to make more and more friends. By the end of the semester, I realized that making 100s on everything and being the absolute best wasn’t the most important thing in life. I learned more from the relationships I made than I ever could have learned from a textbook. My Spanish improved drastically. It made me a much more well-rounded person even though my grades weren’t perfect. And I created memories I will always carry with me and friendships I will always treasure. I started to realize how much I laughed and smiled every day. I was happy all day, every day. My life was full.
I’ve promised myself to take this home with me. I’ve realized that in the future, when I’m seeking a career, people won’t only be looking at my GPA. They’ll be looking at what I’ve done with my life so far. At who I am as a whole. At what I’ve learned from my experiences and at what I can bring to the table because of it. I also realized that since my dream is to work in a Latin American country in the future, either teaching English or working for a non-profit organization, spending my study abroad experience actually seeing Mexico, spending time with its people, participating in its traditions, and practicing its language, rather than focusing myself completely on academics, I have better prepared myself for my future. I am now even more excited for what I’ll be doing after graduation.
With all of this said, I’d advise other first-generation college students to also pursue a more well-rounded college experience. Make friends. Get involved. Have fun. Learn. Soak everything in. Learn from your surroundings and your experiences. Realize how lucky you are to be receiving a college experience and ENJOY IT! Especially while studying abroad. It’s the absolute most amazing opportunity to learn and grow as a student and as an individual.