Studying abroad, and traveling too
Throughout the entire semester, I worried that I would never get to travel. Every weekend people took trips to Mendoza or Iguazu or Chile, I always had books to read, papers to write. I challenged myself with a difficult courseload, and I worked hard to be able to keep up with the classes. I was so afraid I would go back to the United States having spent my semester abroad with my nose in a book instead of exploring Argentina beyond Buenos Aires, that I’d wind up regretting the way I spent my time studying instead of “living”. It took me until the end of the semester to realize that I didn’t have any regrets. Sure, I was still itching to travel, especially since this was my first time outside of the United States.
I think there is a balance to be found between “studies” and “fun” when studying abroad. All along I was thinking there was some exact formula, and that I was doing something “wrong”. I wanted to be traveling more, but I didn’t want to give up doing well in my classes, and I tortured myself trying to have it both ways. It was never about my GPA; I love learning, and reading, and classes — that made me happy. But I felt like I needed to be doing what many other students do, going out more, traveling.
It took me a while to stop worrying about how the other students were budgeting their time abroad and realize that the study abroad experience varies for every individual. What matters most is if I am getting what I want out of the experience, if I am happy. It sounds so simple now that I’m writing it, but throughout the semester, I didn’t know what I ought to be “getting” out of my time abroad. Experience comes through studying, too, I realized. Living with a host family, going to museums, theatres, watching movies, constantly speaking and listening to Spanish. Eating new foods, getting lost, making your own discoveries, and learning from observing a culture that is not your own.
Something one of my professors said during our last class struck a chord with me and provided me with the opportunity for reflection. She was talking about the difficulties foreign exchange students face when studying abroad, and she basically said we don’t have a sufficient level of Spanish to manage such rigorous courses, and that the ideal would be to encounter only professors who are compassionate and understanding of our situation, or to enroll only in classes specifically geared toward exchange students. And that she wasn’t sure how much we could hope to get out of our experience in the universities. She meant well, she is one of the more compassionate professors I have encountered here. But I couldn’t help feeling outraged, because I would like to think I have done quite well this semester! I got really high marks in my literary theory class, for example. And the profs were impressed with my ability to grasp advanced concepts in a foreign language, and without ever having taken a class on literary theory. They, as well as my advisors within the study abroad program, have told me that my command of Spanish (in terms of oral and especially written expression) is phenomenal.
So before I knew what I was saying, I started to respond to this professor’s remarks. Out loud. In front of everyone. Normally I don’t speak up very much in my classes taugh in English in the United States — I prefer to sit quietly and listen to the discussion. But since studying in Buenos Aires, I’ve spoken in front of the crowded classrooms (probably 100 or more students) in UBA, and I’ve become more confident in my Spanish speaking abilities. This seminar was much smaller, and I was passionate about what I had to say in response to this professor’s opinions about foreign students that she had announced without fully knowing my situation, and so speaking up came more easily. It was as though somebody had opened a sort of floodgate, and everything I’d been worrying about lately came to the surface. I contradicted what she’d said, and told her that yes, foreign exchange students can get a great deal out of their experiences in the universities here, and that no, there is nothing wrong with taking only study abroad program courses, but this shouldn’t be our only option. I tried to explain what I’d “gotten” out of studying at UCA and UBA. If I never would have enrolled in the universities, I never would have met her or my classmates in her seminar, for example.
I will admit that taking high level literary theory courses in UBA was extremely difficult, and that there were times I wanted to pull my hair out, times I thought I wasn’t going to survive the semester with my sanity intact. However, if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have done it any differently. Because I learned so much, not only from the classes themselves, but about myself, and what I am capable of academically. I said all of this, and more, and my Spanish flowed so well, because I wasn’t worrying about my grammar. I was passionate about what I had to say. I felt fluent. But when I finished, there was absolute silence, and as it stretched painfully on, I thought, “Good going, Callie. Sheesh what a rant.” Then one student started to clap. And then everyone was applauding me, including the professor! I couldn’t believe it. Great way to end the class.
Finally I managed to get everything written and turned in with enough time to travel through northern Argentina before returning to Buenos Aires for my December 23rd flight back to the United States. Thanks to the help of amazing professors and advisors and program directors I met along the way. In a way, the struggle is what made the experience meaningful. And now, being able to travel feels like a great reward for all of my hard work!