The World Is Your Oyster: Lessons from Studying Abroad

By Zameena Mejia

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Sitting on one tower looking over to La Alhambra in Granada

The other night, a few friends and I went to our campus a la carte dining hall (a rare occurrence as upperclassmen); our table consisted of my international student boyfriend, my gal pal who’d been down in Florida during the spring for the Disney College Program, and fellow Inbetweener April, who’s done a lot of independent and family traveling. April, who’ll be graduating this semester, mentioned that one thing she regretted not doing in her college years was studying abroad…which reminded me how lucky I am to have taken that leap of faith.

It seems like everyone and their mother is studying abroad these days, but you know what? I am so extremely thankful to be a part of that hoard of students who have dispersed around the world in pursuit of education and adventure. There’s no other time in your life when you’ll be able to whimsically study, explore, and see the world at such a relatively low cost (unless it’s your career, then I envy you). Instead of narrating my trip abroad (which I’ve already dedicated an entire other blog to), I would like to share some lessons that I learned from going through the study abroad student experience.

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A rooftop view of Las Cibeles

1. Money isn’t everything.

The main source of parental assistance I received for my travels was the round-trip ticket between New York City and Madrid. Prior to leaving the U.S., I created a crowdfunding blog, babysat for a few family friends, and held a yard sale; the money I fundraised was enough to cover most of my food expenses. While I listened to people around me boast about visiting a new country every other weekend, I had to figure out how I could affordably make it to the places I most wanted to visit. It would have been a lot more convenient to not have to worry about the money, but heck, I still managed to travel to Granada, Barcelona, Zaragoza, and Toledo (all in Spain), and also got to discover the hyperlocal goodness of Madrid. I feel like I really got to know Spain and I look forward to going back to continue exploring.

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It’s all good at the Palacio Real (Royal Palace)

2. Being alone isn’t so bad.

My trip to Madrid was the first time I had traveled anywhere outside the northeast without my family. I arrived a few weeks before the official start of the semester to take a Spanish language-intensive course, so when I wasn’t in class or hanging out with classmates, I was pretty much alone. I spent my time off familiarizing myself with my new neighborhood, meeting local restaurant owners, and catching Spain’s laidback vibe. Unlike the other girls from my home university who chose to live in a flat (apartment) in central Madrid, I opted for living in the university’s student residence hall, which is comprised mostly of Spaniards from around the country. Prior to their arrival, there wasn’t too much to do except but hang out with the other international students, who were [unsurprisingly] primarily interested in finding the best party spots. I instead chose to befriend the daylight, making a Moleskine Madrid City Notebook (which I bought off Amazon) my travel companion in getting lost around Madrid. Things changed big time when my roommate and the rest of the Spaniards finally moved in…which brings me to my next learned lesson.

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Walking around the narrow streets of the open-air museum that is the magical town of Toledo

3. Culture shock fades away as fast as you make it.

I lucked out with Andrea, my old Spanish roommate, who turned out to be a total sweetheart. The first couple of weeks, I was quite ticked off with being awoken by her loudly coming back to our room around 4 a.m. nights in a row. I would soon learn how differently time is perceived in Spain. Willingly waking up early? Not a thing. Getting to places on time? Not a thing. Dinner before 9 p.m.? Not a thing. Going out before midnight? Not a thing. My internal clock soon enough synced up with theirs and I eased into making new friends instead of complaining to certain friends back at home. Spaniards (or the great bunch that I got to befriend) are also amazingly community-oriented. At first, I perceived this as being overbearing and pushy, until I realized that they’re not overbearing, rather that Americans generally prefer to be on their own, do things by themselves and go their own way. Once again, I let myself become more comfortable with their friendliness and soon found myself falling into place with the friendly community.

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A wondrous garden

4. Taking on a challenge is empowering.

That fall semester, I attended Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, one of the six prestigious public universities in Madrid known for its academic rigor and high standards. Being the overachiever that I am, I decided to take four upper level classes in Spanish and just one in English. Why didn’t I just take the easy way through and just take all of my classes in English? I wanted the challenge. I know that I’ll someday want to use my two native languages to communicate in professional settings, and what better opportunity to work on my Spanish than to surround myself with other Spanish students? My GPA that semester wasn’t the highest my transcript has seen, but now that I’m completing my Spanish major, communicating entirely in Spanish has become a lot more natural. While my American counterparts complained of not speaking or not retaining much Spanish, I had happily made friends and finished classes completely in Spanish. The end result was worth the struggle.

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On the Plaza de Cibeles

There are so many more lessons that I would love to share, I surely can go on and on, but the most important lesson that I finally want to share is just go for it. At this year’s NYWICI Student Career Conference, Marie Claire’s Editor-in-chief Anne Fulenwider said something along the lines of, “If you’ve made a list of pros & cons for doing something, and the only thing that’s really stopping you is fear, then go for it.” I know this nugget will stay with me for life, readying me for life’s latest adventures. There are so many opportunities waiting for you and although Buzzfeed may tell you 41 reasons studying abroad in Spain ruins you for life, you really won’t know its marvelousness until you see it for yourself. If you’ve already made plans to study abroad, then go you! You’ve made one of the best decisions of your life. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

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