Program: ENGR Exchange: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (Spain)
Term: Fall 2017
Major: Electrical Engineering
Studying abroad in a country where English is not its first language taught me more than I may have even wanted to learn. The struggle that came with the language barrier gave me so much more of an understanding of others who might not speak English in the US. I come from an immigrant household. I never understood why my parents have never assimilated into the American culture and why English is still difficult for them. After going abroad, my respect and humbleness grew tremendously. I gained a new sense of respect for those who have the courage to migrate into an entirely new country where [they do not speak their] first language.
Studying abroad also broadened my exposure to the fact that almost everyone around the world knows more than two languages whereas in America, most people know only English. Most Americans don't feel the need to be able to speak any other language other than English. I used to obliviously and haughtily think this way too. After going abroad, I was incredibly humbled.
Advice for future #TerpsAbroad: For engineering majors who plan on taking 4-5 engineering/math courses while abroad- don't do it! Classes are really difficult abroad, especially when trying to balance meeting new people and exploring the city and traveling on the weekends. It's like readjusting to a brand new environment and school system as a freshman all over again. I thought I could handle the workload, which I did, but it was really difficult and stressful. Having a lesser work load would have allowed me to better experience the city without constantly being stressed out about my exam scores and trying to see if I'm even gonna pass my classes.
I made a best friend...who is from Monterrey, Mexico...and the reason why this was so memorable for me is because I didn't know a lick of Spanish and she didn't know a bit of English. The fact that two people who can't speak each other's language yet somehow managed to communicate and become very close, amazes me. Our first interaction consisted of using the Google translate app on our phones and simply typing in what we want to say and passing it back and forth. It was hilariously frustrating and difficult. Yet, our shared mutual struggle to communicate with each other became our central fuel for our friendship. By the end of our time abroad, we were able to navigate together in foreign cities, share our stories whether it be boy or family problems, life struggles, etc comfortably, with our broken Spanglish.
Advice for future #TerpsAbroad: As a first generation student, I highly recommend actually taking the initiative to study abroad and not backing out due to whatever financial or parental barrier that you may face. The experience abroad is worth it. Apply for scholarships and work a lot during the summer and save up. You can make it work on a budget and it's worth the effort.
A myth that I have always heard about going abroad is, "I'm not studying abroad because it's too expensive." It is not too expensive if you budget and manage your money well. I saved my entire summer pay and worked two additional side jobs to save up enough money to entirely fund my time abroad. Aside from the cost of purchasing a roundtrip ticket, the amount of money that I spent abroad would be equivalent if not less than what I would typically spend in a semester in the states. The only additional expenses would include my choice of traveling on the weekends, and even then, exploring new countries and cities is cheaper to do it while already in Europe rather than going back and forth from the states.
The hardest part of studying abroad that I did not anticipate was the language barrier. I consider myself to be a very independent and adventurous person. Leading up to my departure date for Spain, I was fairly confident that I would be able to navigate about the city. There were no language class requirements so I thought Madrid, being a large city with tourists, would be fairly compatible with English speakers with little Spanish speaking skills. I took Spanish classes in high school so after brushing up on my basic vocab, I thought I would be fine. I had traveled to Seoul, South Korea in the past and thought it would be fairly easy for a non-Korean speaker to navigate around the city so I assumed it would be that way for me in Spain. Mind you, I know a lot more Korean than I know Spanish, but I was being overly confident and naive and boy did I struggle! I was completely wrong. Being alone in a foreign country without a single family member or native contact was so difficult. Not being able to perform basic tasks like grocery shopping or purchasing a train ticket using the machine because everything was in Spanish was incredibly frustrating and huge attack on my ego. Figuring out my classes schedule was stressful because the Spaniards work at a much relaxed pace than I am used to. It was hard to adjust to the cultural change without my usual points of comfort. However, I was able to get over my fear of looking stupid and prideful ego. I chose to embrace the discomfort and exhaustion of putting in the effort to communicate using the little Spanish that I did know. I decided that a single step every day could eventually lead me somewhere at the end of the week and eventually it did. Just don't give up. It will get better and easier and all the more rewarding.