Lorissa Rutledge studied abroad in Bilbao for a yearlong term in 2017-2018. We talked to Lorissa about why she chose to study abroad a year, how she felt it benefited her, and what some of her tips were for going overseas.
Why did you choose to study abroad in Bilbao?
I chose Bilbao because it seemed to be the best fit for my major and my personal specifications. I am a business major, and I wanted to learn Spanish. Bilbao offered me the most business classes and electives and I could simultaneously learn Spanish. I also liked the fact the Bilbao was in Europe, so I was able to travel to other nearby countries easily.
What surprised you about Bilbao?
I was taken aback by how beautiful Bilbao and the Basque Country are. When we came up over the mountains from Madrid, everything was lush and green. I fell in love with my new home in a matter of moments.
Why do you believe studying abroad for a year is more beneficial than a single semester?
Studying abroad for a year is by far the best decision I made. I feel that with only a semester you are just getting a taste for the culture and the new environment that you are in, but with a year you truly get to dive into the daily life of living there. My two semesters were very different, and I grew a lot from each of them. My first semester flew by so quickly, that I was not ready for it to end come December. Luckily, I came back in January and had a whole other semester to really feel at home in Bilbao. In my second semester, I made some amazing friends from the U.S., but I also met some great people from different countries that I hope I will be able to call lifelong friends. My second semester also helped solidify my Spanish, and my confidence when speaking to locals.
What were some of your fears about studying abroad for a year? How did you overcome them while abroad?
I think I was most worried about leaving my life and the comfort of it. I was worried about leaving to an unknown place and not knowing or understanding how to live there. These fears, I believe, are very common, but there is something about the unknown that is exciting. You are constantly meeting new people and getting to know new places. It is invigorating.
To overcome my fears abroad, I tried to find good friends that helped make up a support system. Everyone there is going through the same emotions you are, and pretty much everyone wants help to get through it, and that is what truly worked for me. After I came back from Spain, I found not much had changed except me. I came back a changed person, but many of the fears I had while away were unnecessary because life continued and when I got home I was able to fall right back into place, just as a slightly different version of myself.
How did you manage homesickness?
I was lucky in the fact that homesickness did not really hit me until my second semester. When I returned to school in the spring with a new group of students, it was different for me. I was worried that I would not make friends and I began to miss home a lot. Fortunately, I met some incredible people who helped me get through those rough times. When I was having difficult days I would call my family or friends to catch up with them. That always seemed to help. Another thing that was a great help to me was just truly diving into Bilbao and Getxo. If I felt homesick, I tried to make myself feel more at home in Spain by exploring and getting to know my new home better.
In what ways were you pushed out of your comfort zone and how did that help you grow as a person?
When I first arrived in Spain I spoke no Spanish and was somewhat self-conscious with making new friends. Just being in a place where I didn’t speak any of the language was a huge step outside my comfort zone. I lived with a host mom, who I only spoke Spanish to, so I got to practice daily. By the end of the semester, I was more confident with my Spanish-speaking skills, and it only got better in the second semester. In the second semester, I felt comfortable in Bilbao — it was my home and I felt confident in being able to meet new people, make friends and show them around this amazing city that I had grown to love.
What did you learn about yourself during your time abroad?
During my time abroad, I learned that I have a great sense of direction. I guess this is not something I have ever really put to the test until I was in Europe where you walk every city. I figured out Bilbao and Getxo fairly quickly, but the more I traveled the more I was able to pick up the layout of each new city faster than the one prior. This came in handy multiple times, in many new cities, when a group of friends and I were lost and I was somehow able to remember how to get home.
What was your favorite class and why?
My favorite class was Spanish. These classes were difficult and accelerated, but I enjoyed being able to practice my Spanish in my everyday life. I was able to see improvement each week. They were my most applicable classes.
How did living with a host family impact your experience?
I lived with a woman named Begona. She was so incredible and I think that having a host mom enriched my entire experience. I stayed with her for the whole year and I was able to learn a lot of Spanish from her. I also was surrounded by the Spanish culture daily. I even went with her to her family’s house for Christmas dinner. Getting to see the Spanish culture from a more private view definitely changed my experience for the better.
What advice do you have for students debating whether to study abroad for a year?
If you are thinking about it, do it! Some people just have this gut feeling, like “Wow, that would be amazing. I wish I could do that.” That feeling means you should do it! I think I was most worried about leaving my friends and family, but everyone was supportive of my choice and excited to live vicariously through me. I think a year is more than doable. When it comes down to time and money, everything you put into doing this experience you will get back tenfold in the amazing experiences, memories and friends you will make.