Real Lessons of Studying Abroad Have Nothing to do with School

**Note: Many of these conversations happened in Spanish and have been both translated and paraphrased**

They say that when you study abroad it does not feel real at first. I can tell you the exact moment that it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had dragged my overstuffed duffel into the entry of the residence hall I would be staying in and the woman at the front desk asked me, “Are you alone?”

That it is when it hit me. For the first time in my life I was totally, completely alone. The next closest person I knew was five hours away. No one else spoke my first language. What had I got myself into?

That night I wandered down to dinner and was welcomed by my peers with open arms. They did everything they could to make me feel comfortable. They helped when I couldn’t say a word or was confused about what they were asking.

Those first few days, the kids that I was living with did everything that they could to make me to feel welcome. They took me out to experience tapas, we went to the beach because I mentioned that I wanted to go, they helped with whatever I needed. I was comfortable and happy. I am comfortable and happy.

That doesn’t mean that this easy. This is my first time being really separated from my family, with whom I am very close. Not being able to communicate in your first language is beyond frustrating and lonely. Everything here is foreign, from the food to how the crosswalks work. Every morning I wake up knowing that the day will bring a new challenge; something new to navigate without the help of familiarity of language or people.

Another thing to understand about my situation is that I physically stand out. The US is a country of immigrants so there is no stereotypical “look” of what an American is. That is not the case in Spain. Almost everyone here has dark eyes and dark hair, so my orange hair and blue eyes make me really stand out. I don’t even need to say anything before I am asked where I am from. I always have an acute awareness that I am obviously different. It is a small thing, but it is alienating.

One of the most frustrating series of days was trying to figure out my schedule. I showed up and had no school schedule and no one seemed to have any intention to help me beyond scolding me and telling me that I was not doing it correctly.

There was one day that was particularly difficult when I was informed that no one thought I could take organic chemistry here. It was that day, after crying in the bathroom, that I found a sunbeam of hope. In another one of my classes I needed to buy a textbook, and one of my classmates walked me to the store to get it and then lent me €15 when I didn’t have enough to buy it. This seems like such a small, easy action but it made a world of difference. It was a small reminder that when I feel the most alone there are still people there.

Studying abroad is about learning. Yes, I am taking mass and energy balances and organic chemistry, but this isn’t really what I am learning. I am learning how to live, learning what it is like to live in a foreign world, learning how much a small act of kindness can mean

This has all really made me think about how many people in the US, how many people at Mines, are in a foreign country facing these exact challenges every day. How many people wake up and feel a little alone and scared, no matter what. For this reason, we all need to love and care for each other. Offer a smile or a kind word, there are not words for how much difference it can make. It does not matter what language a person speaks or what they look like, everyone needs help some days and we all need love. Love and kindness are international languages.

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