Alumni Q&A: Virginia – San Sebastian, Spain

1. Why did you choose the study abroad program that you did?

When I decided apply for a study abroad program I already knew that I wanted to study somewhere that would help me learn to speak and understand Spanish. I then had to choose between the Spain and Costa Rica programs.

Ultimately I chose to study abroad in Spain because I had always wanted to travel around Europe, and I thought it would be good opportunity to not only learn the language but visit many other countries as well.

I had spoken with USAC alumni about the various Spain programs and researched locations before choosing to study in the San Sebastián.

The combination of the beautiful location and the recommendations of other students helped me solidify my decisions to study there. It turned out to be more than I ever imagined.

2. If or when you study abroad again, where would you like to go? Why?

If I get to study abroad again, which I would love to do, I would like to return to San Sebastián. I feel like I could have spent much more time there. However, there are many more locations that I would love to spent time in.

I would like to study in London at one point. Though I wouldn’t be practicing a new language, I would like to get the big city experience. I would also be able to work more in my major, journalism, there.

3. What are some of your favorite highlights from your time abroad?

There were so many highlights to my study abroad experience. In general I loved just living by the ocean and getting to experience the city of San Sebastián.

One of my favorite experiences was the night of the Tamborrada, a 24 hour festival celebrating the city. The entire city was out all day and night dancing and singing and playing drums in the streets. It was incredible to witness the lively culture of the people and share in the festivities.

Another highlight was spending two weeks on spring break with my host family. I learned more about the Spanish language in that short time than in all of my classes, and I had a lot of fun..

Another one of my absolute favorite experiences was the surfing class. I had so much fun and learned so much from the local sure instructors.

4. In your experience, what are the major benefits of studying abroad?

Studying abroad has given me greater confidence in a lot of areas of my life. First of all I learned so much about the Spanish language and got to practice with native speakers for five months straight.

I also feel accomplished in moving to a new city, living with strangers and making my way in a foreign county. I improved my interpersonal skills, my organizations skills and my traveling skills (yes, traveling definitely takes practice).

After studying abroad I feel more open to other cultures, new experiences and have a greater desire to learn more about the world. I have come home with a more open perspective of my life, the world and of other people.

Even though it wasn’t always easy to adjust to a very different lifestyle I feel I have grown so much from my experience abroad. There are many benefits of studying abroad and having the most fun, exciting time of your life is just one of them.

5. What were some of the special/unique things you were able to do or see?

I was able to experience not only Spanish culture, but I got a very close look into Basque culture as well. Our program took us on multiple excursions around the Basque Country and offered many classes and activities that allowed us to integrate and learn a lot about the people and their culture.

We got to see many important historical and geographical sites around the Basque Country as well. Some of the interesting places we got to visit were a traditional Basque farm house, a cider house and the important geological site in Zumaia.

6. What was a fun cultural experience?

I knew that adjusting to a new culture would be difficult, but I never expected to feel so clumsy and unsure so often. I had many funny experiences in Spain while ordering food, buying groceries, speaking with my host mom and just finding my way around.

One night I remember going to a little bar in the old part of town to eat dinner and start a night out. It was a bar that served mussels and other portions of Spanish dishes. I noticed that all over the floor were dirty napkins and even the shells form the mussels. People were just dropping them on the ground below the tables and bar stools.

My friend and I were appalled and thought what a rude bunch of people were in that bar until another friends explained that it was customary to drop the stuff on the floor, even respectable in many bars in the Basque Country.

It was a very foreign concept to us, but reluctantly we followed suit and let a crumpled napkin join the ranks of its fallen comrades on the floor. I couldn’t do the shells though. That was just too much.

7. What did you learn about yourself?

Studying abroad taught me a lot about myself. I learned that I am a lot more outgoing than I thought and that meeting new people and interacting with others is rewarding and fun.

I learned that being able to get along with all different kinds of people and to always try to understand others, no matter how foreign, is really important to me.

I believe that having an open mind to new cultures and ways of life is very important. Studying abroad has helped me feel more open to the world and more capable of exploring it.

8. How did studying abroad change you?

During my studying abroad experience I learned that as important as it is to be active and hardworking that taking time to relax can be equally as important and rewarding.

Living in Spain, and witnessing a culture very different from the American one, has taught me that it is important to take time out to spend time with other people and especially family.

I’ve learned that I don’t always have to be in a hurry and that I can actually accomplish more and enjoy life more if I take time to relax.

9. What’s one thing you would have done differently?

If I could do one thing differently in my study abroad experience I would have stay up later, gone out more, spent more time with local people, studied verb conjugations more often and gone on more excursions and hikes.

The only problem was that I didn’t have enough time to accomplish all of the plans I had. I would have loved to stay for a whole year if I could have, I would have changed that.

10. Now that you’re home, how has study abroad impacted your life?

Now that I am home I tend to think about things differently. I feel more open to new experiences and want to explore the people and things in my own city that I have taken for granted before.

I also try to be more understanding and patient with other people. I feel more confident and capable of traveling, interacting with new people and taking care of myself.

11. How many years did it/will it take you to graduate?

I will graduate in four years. Studying abroad has actually made it possible for me to get a second major in Spanish and still graduate in four years.

12. What are you doing now?

I am currently enjoying my summer vacations and getting ready to finish my final two semesters at UNR. I have a job as a nanny and am going to take summer school courses.

I want to find a group with whom I can continue practice my Spanish and volunteer at a local elementary school with primarily Spanish speaking students.

13. What, in your opinion, are the biggest myths students believe about study abroad?

I don’t remember hearing many myths about studying abroad before my trip, but maybe there were some expectations that went along with the idea. I had heard that classes abroad are typically less difficult and that teachers are more lenient.

I am sure that this depends on the program, but from what I had heard from other students it seemed that it was true. However, in my experience abroad my classes were actually fairly difficult and the Spanish teachers were actually very strict graders.

Though our teachers said we were doing a great job and improving a lot of us were getting the grades we were use to receiving.

I had not expected all of my classes to be as difficult as they were, and I felt I had to work extra hard to get the grades I wanted while balancing all of the extracurricular activities and fun stuff that is a part of the experience as well.

14. What advice would you tell students trying to decide whether or not to study abroad?

I would tell the hesitant student that they should definitely take the leap of faith and apply for a studying abroad program.

I would tell them honestly that it would be one of the best decisions they ever make and one of the most rewarding experiences of their life.

I wouldn’t tell them that that they are going to feel perfectly comfortable throughout the entire experience nor that they wouldn’t ever wish to be home with their stuff and their people because they might honestly feel out of place and homesick at times.

However, I could confidently tell them that despite all of the ups and downs of the journey, I know that studying abroad would be an opportunity for growth in ways they can’t imagine if not the most fun experience of their entire lives.

I would tell the hesitant student that they would regret missing out on the opportunities USAC has to offer.

-Virginia Allen, University of Nevada, Reno, studied in San Sebastián, Spain.