Almost 4 years ago I left home to an international residence to begin community college. I was as ‘red-white-and-blue’ as could be. The residence was a combination of UCLA and community college students from all around the world and it held 400 students. To compact two of the best years of my life into a few words, I am forever changed, and have been bitten by the international bug. The question became not if, but where I would study abroad, and Barcelona has fulfilled my expectations and then some. My semester has been a whirlwind, and as it comes to a close, I can’t help but think about where I have been and where I will go. This article is not about Haas, or about business, but I think it illustrates some of the massive personal development gains available from an abroad experience. It has given me a huge chance to be a ‘student always,’ seeing as everyday life is a learning experience. Who knows, it just might light a spark in one of you to study abroad, travel, and explore!
One of my best friends in Los Angeles was Oriol. While the co-op residence where we lived was a roulette wheel of people and cultures that changed every semester, we were lucky enough to arrive within a week, stay for two years, and leave within a month of each other. As we went our separate ways, we maintained in good contact, and picked up here like we had never stopped. A few days into the program he invited me to go with him to the FC Barcelona game at the stadium, Camp Nou. The only problem was that he didn’t have a ticket for me, but “rest assured,” I was told, “students can get free tickets at the door with a lot of luck.”
Although I was just getting settled here in Barcelona, and was dog-tired that night, I went. In LA he used to always tell me, ‘you have to risk it to get the biscuit,’ and low and behold I got the ticket. There were dozens of guys trying to do the same thing, but a kind family saw me and took pity on my poor Catalan phrase, ‘que et sobra un carnet?’ It means, “do you have an extra ticket?” and is the single non-English phrase I will never forget. The game was tremendous, and since then I have seen two more games, and a traditional Castanyada dinner with this family. I am beyond lucky.
One of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my life, and certainly during my time in Barcelona, was signing up for the IES Abroad ‘Spanish Through Theatre’ class. I was told that it was a new class with one of IES’s best teachers, (and found out on my own that it was conveniently made up of all females), so I signed up. We were tasked with performing a full play in Spanish as part of our final exam, and my next choice became “what role to choose?” I could ‘coast’ with a small role, or take a lead role. I thought back to Oriol’s philosophy that had worked so well in the past, and signed up for two roles, one of them being Fernando, the lead. I remember thinking, “if it goes well then that’s great, and if it goes poorly, I want to crash and burn … it will at least be funny that way.”
At times, I didn’t think it was going to be possible. We were 7 non-native speakers, and certainly were not actors. After a fabulous acting workshop, and constant encouragement from our professor (who also volunteered for a roll as to be ‘in the same boat’), we mustered the courage to at least show up on the day of the play. In a few words … it went tremendously. Of course all the IES staff wished us congratulations, but even Oriol, his father, and the family I had met at Camp Nou told us how impressive it was that a group of Americans had done such a great job. I thought back about my choice of whether to ‘coast’ or not, and I would not have had it any other way.
Another lucky break was a conversation with a friend of a friend, when I heard about a Water Polo club that would like to have me come and try out. I was told when and where to meet, and not much more. They have all become amazing friends, and it is amazing to be able to practice my favorite sport while also practicing Spanish (very little English spoken there). Last week we all went to a buffet of jamón, chorizo, and tapas to celebrate my final match with the club. It is coming up and it is our rival game. I have been told it is our equivalent of a Barca-Madrid game … our ‘derby.’ Win loose or draw, I will really miss these guys, and it is another example of how my abroad mentality of ‘why not?’ has paid off in a huge way. I have assured them that I will be back sooner rather than later, and I know that this game will not mark the last time I dawn a Sant Adriá water polo cap.
Finally, we come to my favorite weekend of my semester, the IES Gastronomic Tour of Navarra. Just when I thought I had fallen in love with Barcelona, I found the wonder of País Vasco. It is a zone in the North of Spain, and is similar to Catalunya in that they speak another language, have a unique cuisine and vibrant culture to match. It was a non-stop trip of trying new foods, visiting local food productions (cider, cheese, wine, honey, and olive oil among them), and bonding with our fellow students. We did sightseeing, off-the-beaten-path-things, and downright shocking things, all of which I am incapable of forgetting. I knew that we were seeing the real País Vasco when our chef invited us to his father’s home before our Sunday lunch to try some of the produce fresh from the dirt, along with Xistorra (typical Spanish sausage), and some wine to wash it down. I think I can speak for the group in saying that País Vasco has a special place in all of our hearts. Looking at the pictures makes me nostalgic and hungry at the same time.
I could go on and on writing because I get more excited with each story I relive. I guarantee that every student has their own stories that define their experience as mine have for me. I’ll never forget the grin my friend Mike gave me as he recounted his free VIP table and drinks at Oktoberfest simply by chatting with a waiter. Although I paid full price at Oktoberfest, I couldn’t be happier for him, and congratulated him on ‘risking’ it. These are all great study abroad stories, but the reality is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Every day is an adventure if you let it be so. It’s all part of the show (although our play is long since over), and I have learned that being abroad is a mentality, not a location. The more you put in, the more you get out, and the risk is always rewarded. I always knew that studying abroad was going to be a life changing experience, but I didn’t quite know how. Well … now I know.