When I was deciding to study abroad, the USAC program was the first to pop into my head. I had a number of friends who studied in Spain, Japan, Germany, Italy, France, London, Ireland, Costa Rica and plenty more countries; all with USAC and each one of them had an experience of a lifetime! So, for me it was only natural I looked into one of those programs.
Where should I go?
The first step was deciding on a location, and let me tell you, it was harder than you think. Looking through the book of programs USAC offered was a bit overwhelming because each location had unique courses and travel opportunities. After talking to a few advisors, and Carmelo Urza, who was my landlord and is the CEO of USAC (he never told me he was the CEO until he was retiring), I finally came to the conclusion that I would go to Spain on a new program in a city called Valencia. I wanted to create my own experience, one my friends hadn’t had before, but I also wanted to be in a bigger city that wasn’t too touristy. It was also important that the city I studied in would allow me to travel to and from other countries during long weekends and breaks with ease. Valencia hit each requirement.
How long should I study abroad?
After I finally picked a program, the next big question was to decide how long I wanted to stay: one semester or two. I know plenty of people who had studied abroad for a semester, but only one who stayed a year. I did some research and asked a lot of questions. Most of the single semester students I spoke with said their time abroad went by too fast. They wished for more time in their respective cities. So, I daringly chose to do the yearlong program, and (as the poet Robert Frost wrote) that has made all the difference.
There were tons of perks to the yearlong program. Knowing you are going to be in one place for a year of school, there are fewer things that could potentially cause stress. You can take your time sightseeing your host city and, of course, the world. This is something I wish everyone could have the experience and time to do. Taking classes while simultaneously planning and taking weekend trips to new cities or countries really takes a toll on your body and mind. Knowing I had a lot of time in Valencia made it possible to take weekends to sleep, catch up on Netflix shows and hang out at my favorite places in town. I didn’t feel pressured to push myself over my limit because traveling is fun but also exhausting. With extra time abroad, I had the incredible opportunity to travel more than most semester students. In total I visited 11 different countries. I did more traveling first semester than second, but it was nice to be away for the first half then home for the last five months. Second semester I became more interested in exploring Valencia, my new home, as well as other cities in Spain.
My First Semester Abroad
My first semester was a whirlwind of emotions; my first time being outside of the United States, and my first experience in a new culture where I did not speak the same language. I was an extreme beginner when it came to speaking Spanish, and I was extremely nervous to speak. At first, I relied on my peers to get around. I was living in a co-ed flat with four men and four women, all who were USAC students. Across the hall from us was another flat filled with eight men and below us was yet another with seven women, all belong to my USAC program. Needless to say, we all got to know each other VERY well. We went to class together, got dinner or drinks together, took random trips to the markets to get fresh food together, we bonded quickly. It was a lot of fun getting to know people from all over the states and even other countries like Norway and France. Every person was so unique and outgoing, there was never a dull moment.
After our classes at the university, our favorite thing to do was to walk to the beach where we’d spend the rest of the afternoon. During the week, the beaches were almost empty, so we would take advantage of this and meet up in front of the “Pans and Company,” a Spanish fast food chain, and just lie in the sun and enjoy the Mediterranean Sea. One of my favorite traditions was our park and picnic days. Every Sunday (when we weren’t traveling) my friends and I would go to a nearby park and have a picnic. Since most of the markets and restaurants were closed on Sunday, it was a fun way to relax before class would start the next day. When the program was coming to an end, it was hard to say goodbye to everyone. Watching the people I spent almost every single day with pack up their lives and head back to the States was extremely sad. And before I knew it, I was in this massive apartment alone, and it was a quiet as it could be.
Jumping into Semester Two
Though that chapter was ending, a new one was beginning. I had a few weeks off so, I traveled and then it was time for me to start the next semester. But this time my experience would be completely different. Instead of living in an apartment with other students, I lived with a Spanish host family so I could take the opportunity to learn more about the Spanish lifestyle and culture, and improve my conversational Spanish.
I took more difficult Spanish classes, which included intermediate to advanced Spanish, a Spanish Conversation course and a Spanish Culture and Civilization class. Needless to say, it was 24/7 Spanish. My comprehension, listening and reading skills improved a lot, however; it was still hard for me to speak in conversationally.
Since I no longer lived in the apartments and my host family was a bit further outside of the hustle and bustle of Valencia, I felt as though I wasn’t as close with most of the students of the program. I talked to most of them casually at school and got to know them a bit, but there was a stark difference between my relationships with my friends from the first semester and my friends second semester. I wanted to change that so I went on a few trips through ERASMUS (European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) with other USAC students, and that was the perfect opportunity and environment to get to know them all better. Since this was not my first semester in Valencia, I had the inside scoop on what Valencia really had to offer. For example, I could tell other students where the office for the public transportation was on campus, which supermarkets had good prices and even where the best local bar was.
The second semester I met more locals, and got to know what their life was like growing up in Valencia. I realized quickly that they live completely different. Most Spanish students know what they want their future career to be right out of high school, and go to specialized colleges or universities that offer their topic of interest. Where as in America, we spend so much time in university figuring out what we want to do, very few know right off the bat.
Looking Back on a Year Abroad
Since my departure from the United States in August of 2017 to my return in May of 2018, I have learned more about the world and life than I ever thought I would have from my time abroad. From traveling to different countries and seeing different perspective and lifestyles, I really gained perspective. The world is so much bigger than I thought. My favorite part was having the opportunity to immerse myself in different cultures, from learning how people cook their food, to how they drive their cars; there was always something to learn and a new piece of the world map to complete.
I need to thank my family for the consistent support and encouragement they gave me throughout my whole experience, without their advice and wisdom, I wouldn’t be half the man I am today. I also need to thank my friends, new and old, for making the memories I can look back on for the rest of my life.
Looking back, I have become a new version of myself; I’m renewed and refined. I understand why so many people are addicted to traveling. Each time you visit a new place you become more in tune to what and who you are as a person. For me, I have molded into a more open minded and compassionate guy. And even though I spent a year abroad, my hunger for new opportunities, experiences and travel will never be fully satiated.
Mason Najima attends the University of Nevada, Reno. He studied abroad in Valencia, Spain and served as a Digital Communications Intern for USAC while abroad.