PALs 2019-2020 Q&A with Ashley Shah, Huntsman ‘21

November 16, 2020
By Joseph Squillaro, CAS ‘22

Ashley Shah, a member of the Class of 2021 in the Huntsman Program, participated in a Semester Abroad to Barcelona, Spain through the CASA Barcelona program in Spring 2020. During the 2019-2020 academic year, Ashley is serving as a Penn Abroad Leader, which is Penn Abroad’s student advisory board focused on special projects and supporting fellow students interested in global experiences. We sat down with her to learn more about her path to Barcelona, what she misses most since returning to the U.S., and her advice for fellow students interested in going abroad.

Tell me about yourself: your major, interests, and what Penn Abroad programs you participated in.
So currently I am a senior in the Huntsman Program, which means that I am majoring in international studies in the College and finance and behavioral economics in Wharton. The program that I participated in was Casa Barcelona. It sadly was cut short due to COVID-19 but I was there for about two months. Well, I was technically there for about two months and 15 days but I say two months because I actually had to come back to the States for two weeks in the middle of the program because my major activity at Penn, which is ILMUNC, a Model UN conference for high school students, was happening and I was the Secretary-General. So overall I was there for about two months but don't regret any of it, both my time in Spain and coming back for ILMUNC.

Why did you choose those programs?
My target language in the Huntsman Program is Spanish so I knew that I had to go to a Spanish-speaking country and my cousin had actually gone abroad from Princeton to Barcelona and had the time of his life. I did briefly consider South America just because places like Argentina are beautifully filled with culture. But at the end of the day I think what really outweighed the balance for Barcelona, or Europe in general, was that I couldn't pass up the opportunity to be able to travel so easily to so many places within the EU. For example, you can take a $20 flight to pretty much anywhere. I felt like South America was a place I could go at some other time. I also think I chose Barcelona because I wanted the city vibe. There were four other Huntsman kids going to Barcelona too, which provided some comfort.

What was your living situation?
Casa Barcelona is a little bit unique in that they have dorm-like accommodation. It's called TSH, the student hotel, and it's pretty much a four-building complex that houses a bunch of foreign exchange students, so everyone in Casa Barcelona lived there together. We all had our own single rooms. I absolutely loved it. Each floor had its own kitchen. You didn't have a kitchen in your own room, so people would cook together. There was also a rooftop pool on one of the buildings. There were a lot of common spaces downstairs, including a classroom where we actually had two of our classes. The accommodations were also ideally located in the city, being right next to the subway line that would take us to our campus buildings within seven minutes. It was a great living experience that was super convenient and super close to the action.

What was your favorite experience among the trips and why?
The trip organizers had set us up to go to Madrid, Granada, and then later on to Bocconi, Italy. Unfortunately, I missed the trip to Madrid, but I actually did get to go to Granada. I think one of my favorite experiences that I look back on a lot is that while in Granada, there is this place called the Alhambra. It's huge, gigantic, and it's beautiful. We visited the Alhambra itself but then there are also these places across Granada, which when translated literally means “looking point.” People would go there for sunset. You can just see the entire Alhambra with the sun setting on the side. I remember eating the best lavender ice cream while up there and watching this gigantic sunset. It was absolutely stunning and I truly had a sense of peace despite there being so many people around me. Peace in the chaos, I guess.

Is there something that you miss that you can't get in the US?
Absolutely. I'll say two things. The first one is just a more obvious thing, but Barcelona always had lunch specials that let you choose an entree, appetizer, and dessert. And it was all for around 10 Euros! It was amazing because as a student who had a short break between classes, I would just pick any restaurant and I could count on a cheap and convenient meal. It was great food, so I definitely miss that.

The other, more intangible thing was that Barcelona, and Europe in general, have a very different pace of life than the United States. Especially as a Penn student in Huntsman who did finance over the summer, I just found myself over the past few months constantly looking back at the much better work-life balance. That is something you definitely do not see in the U.S.

What was the most challenging thing about living abroad?
I mean, I'll be honest. I absolutely loved my experience, so take these two criticisms with a grain of salt. The first is that in Barcelona, there were quite a few instances of pickpocketing and muggings. I definitely was much more cautious when I went out and I pretty much emptied my pockets and kept my phone in a place where I could always feel it. So you definitely must have a level of being more cautious as I did have a close friend that got mugged. The other thing is that many people think that when you go abroad your life is going to look like a movie and you're going to have something to do every day. But it's not like that as you're “living there” so there's going to be plenty of days where you're just chilling in bed, the same way that you would here. I think for some people, that can hit them really hard because if you expect to be living this exciting glamorous life and then you got there and you spend three days doing homework and watching Netflix, you say to yourself “wait, why am I here?” I think it's important to keep in mind that sometimes it's just like life in the same way that it would be if you were on a college campus in the States, and that is okay!

Do you have any advice for people looking to spend time in their academic careers abroad?
I think I would say that the reason that “abroad has changed my life” has become such a meme is because it is true. It came from somewhere and it didn't just come out of thin air. I was only there for about two months but I could point out changes that I felt in those two months that someone there for five months would feel. You come back with an entirely new perspective and that's not something that cannot be taught in any Penn classroom or online class. You'll never learn how to take care of yourself and be responsible to get from Austria to Budapest and deciding what's the cheapest train to use along with what's the best way to get there. You wouldn't know how to get over the language barrier or learn how to be self-sufficient and independent. I think that's huge.

I think the biggest piece of advice that I would say right now is, given how our education in the States is very America-centric, your eyes are opened up to a whole new world. I had a professor who asked me to teach the US revolution for one of his classes as he always asked an American student to do it. So I gave an entire lecture for 40 minutes in Spanish and talked about the American Revolution. And then at the end he basically said, “Yeah, but I don't think it was a revolution.” I just stood there on stage and was shocked that I never thought about it in a different way before. Going abroad will challenge you in so many positive ways, so be prepared for it and dive into it.

Rapid Fire Questions:

Most essential item that you packed that you could not have left without?

Most useful local phrase?
Donde está [insert place]

Two words that you would describe your study abroad experience?
Eye-opening and chaotic-good

Ashley Shah blog pic 2
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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.