Semester Abroad It’s Not All Rainbows and Flamenco
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February 23, 2021
Greta Kazenski, Penn Abroad Senior Global Programs Manager
Studying and living abroad is an experience shared by all of our Penn Abroad staff, and what motivates us to assist Penn students in doing the same. Our team members have reflected on their own global experiences to share key insights, takeaways, and advice for Penn students interested in studying/working abroad. Senior Global Programs Manager Greta Kazenski shares how her semester abroad in Spain, although initially challenging, proved to be a wonderful, life-changing experience.
You hear people say that studying abroad changed their life, and it did for me, but not without struggle.
I spent my spring semester of junior year in Madrid, Spain, living with a host mom and taking half my classes enrolled in the psychology department at a local university. During the first half of my time there, I struggled with adjusting to the culture and norms and felt lost without my responsibilities and schedule. By April, however, things began to turn around. I started studying with a Spanish classmate, Isabel, and she had me over to her apartment a few times. Not only did she really help me understand the concepts from my Perception and Attention psychology class, but she also cooked Spanish lentejas (lentils) with sausage and morcilla from her home state of Rioja. Around the same time, my friend Hilary from my study abroad program had been meeting with a weekly language buddy. A puente (long weekend) was coming up, and Hilary’s language buddy invited us on a trip to the beach in Cádiz with him and a group of 6 Spanish friends. I remember we sang along to 90’s pop and laughed the whole drive there. Finally, I had formed local friendships, with only a month left in Madrid. After that, I had no interest in traveling on the weekends anymore; I just wanted to explore Madrid from the viewpoint of my new local friends. In the end, I felt like my Spanish had improved dramatically, and I was devastated to leave.
Thus, it is amusing now to read my journal from three months into my semester abroad in Madrid. I still didn’t like the clothes, I didn’t like the hairstyles, I didn’t like the food, I didn’t like the coffee, and I didn’t like all the smoking. People looked at me funny when I went out for a run. I only had a few acquaintances from my classes at the local university, and I still felt like a foreigner. At 3 months, I felt like my Spanish language ability had hit a plateau and I wasn’t improving. I wanted to transport my life from back home to Spain, but that’s not what study abroad is. Even though I had done some fun weekend trips in Europe, I felt ready to go home.
On my home campus in Los Angeles, I was involved and had a leadership position at my campus job. If I wasn’t at work, the rest of the office would suffer. People would notice and care if I was absent for a day. I balanced a busy schedule between classes, my job, and student activities. My presence and efforts mattered. However, in Spain, I had no responsibilities other than keeping up with my academics. My schedule was pretty flexible, and even if I skipped a class, probably none of my Spanish classmates would notice. I did not expect to feel so lost without my responsibilities and schedule. I felt like I wasn’t important.
Nevertheless, so much changed between the time I wrote those journal entries and when I departed Spain in May. After graduating from college, I went back to Madrid to work for a year. Of course, having a work schedule was helpful to feeling important and motivated. Also, as soon as possible, I sought out and joined a master’s swim team. I made all my best friends through the swim team – both Americans and Spaniards alike. I knew that if I didn’t show up for practice or a swim meet, it would hurt the team and my friends would worry about me. I sought out coffee, food, routines, and clothing stores and styles that I enjoyed, regardless of whether they were popular with my Spanish peers. I gained so much confidence in learning what truly makes me happy and comfortable, but also learned to appreciate the differences. My experience living in Spain the second time was incredible and so different than the first. But, I took the lessons I learned from my struggles during my semester abroad and made specific choices to have a positive experience.