Everyone told me that going abroad would change my life, but I never actually knew the impact that I was in for. I was extremely blessed to be chosen to receive the VIH scholarship. I have been both a leader and a follower throughout my life, but this was the true test, spending a month in a foreign country with a language I did not speak.
My Host Mom
For the duration of my stay in Barcelona, Spain, I lived with a host mom, Mercedes. My host mom is one of the few people who have drastically changed my outlook on life. She took me under her wing immediately. She spoke Spanish to me because she knew I barely spoke the language but wanted to get the full experience of immersion and was eager to learn. She would translate things I didn’t understand and by the end of the trip, I was able to speak with her in Spanish decently well. I could order food in Spanish as well as ask for help when I needed it. Mercedes introduced me to her family, her friends and even her sister’s dog. She taught me how to use the Metro and the airport shuttle. We watched the election of the new mayor of Barcelona and she explained the different political parties and what they stood for. She also explained to me about Catalans.
I never knew about Catalans before I arrived in Spain. This was extremely interesting to me. I learned that Catalans are a nationalist group of people who speak the language of Catalan and are seeking independence from Spain. They have their own ideologies and even their own flag. There is a huge conflict between Spanish people in Spain and the Catalans. I saw this a lot in public.
I took an art class while I was in Spain called “Catalonia and Spain Through the Arts.” I’m a senior biology major who has never taken an art class nor a history class in college. This pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but I ended up loving it. I made a friend in my class from Nashville who ended up being my best friend on the trip. Our class visited museums as well as buildings around the city. We spoke about art throughout time as well as architecture. I chose Gaudi for my projects because I knew nothing about him. I was able to visit a few of his works around Barcelona, taking pictures and making them into a poster with dialogue for a project. This helped me appreciate art more than I ever did before. My professor, Marcel, played a huge role in helping my love for art grow. He taught with great passion and love for art history.
Barcelona vs U.S.
I learned a lot of things about Barcelona that I wish we had here. Their transportation system is impeccable. Everyone uses the buses and trains without thought. Since there are multiple modes of transportation, including biking, walking and the use of scooters, there isn’t as much traffic. Everything flows smoothly.
I love the minimalist ideology in Barcelona. People only buy what they need to and only own what they need, nothing more. They don’t own mig cars or store junk in their homes. In fact, their homes are quite small. The food is also extremely healthier than ours. I was so surprised when my bread turned moldy a few days after I bought it. My host mom explained to me that everything in Spain is fresh and not processed. Over the course of my stay, I ate home-cooked meals and my body just felt healthy, especially with all of the walking I did. FYI, I highly recommend Dr. Scholls shoes. I wore these the entire time I was abroad and didn’t get a single blister despite walking 40 to 50 miles a week. It was the best I’ve ever felt and I didn’t drink copious amounts of caffeine as I do in the U.S. because I’m always so tired here. Lastly, the streets of Barcelona are very clean. There are people hired to work to keep the streets clean. There are also trash cans everywhere as well as separated recycling bins. They encourage recycling!
My Pivotal Moments
One of my most important encounters on this trip was when I met with my host mom’s friend. He spoke English almost perfectly and was an artist and a philosopher. He told me about a book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. What he told me helped me learn how to become a better person, a better leader. The first agreement is “be impeccable with your word,” meaning be careful with your words and stand by them. The second is “don’t take anything personally.” The third is “don’t make assumptions.” The fourth is “always do your best.” We sat through dinner and he explained these agreements and how to implement them in everyday life. This was the pivotal moment for me on this trip. Not the tourism, not the friends I made in class or the experiences I had with them, but this conversation right here. These four agreements can not only help someone better themselves, but also to be an effective leader. You must work on yourself before you take charge of others.
Toward the end of my trip, I was further tested when I went to Naples and Marseille. Italian is a language I know nothing about and that was hard for me. It was hard for me to communicate, but I was able to navigate the city and even learned about their soccer team, which won the league while I was there. When I went to Marseille, I was well prepared. I have family there and have been learning French most of my life so I was able to communicate with my family, which was amazing. It’s incredible that I not only navigated my way through three different cities with three different languages, but that I was also able to help my friends as well. My experience has taught me to trust, be resourceful, and help others in general in a setting with a language barrier.
I learned two things that hit close to home and were pivotal moments. One, I learned that no one judges you. So many women of all body types wore what they wanted on the beach, if they wore anything at all. No one laughed, stared or commented. Everyone minded their own business. People wore what they wanted, not paying attention to brands. I felt like I belonged. Here, Americans judge each other for just about anything. I also learned that it is more than ok to go out alone. I found that I enjoyed taking myself out for food, a drink, even to a club. In the United States, there’s a stigma that it’s awkward to do activities alone. Most people try to surround themselves with friends to avoid being alone.
Vira I. Heinz
Arcadia University offers a scholarship based out of the University of Pittsburgh for women, non-binary and transgender leaders called the Vira I. Heinz scholarship. This scholarship is for sophomores and juniors with no previous international experience. Three to four students from the participating schools are awarded $5000 to put toward a study abroad program of their choice spanning at least 28 days. Experiences may include study abroad, volunteer work or internships. Some students utilize Arcadia University’s programs and others, like me, utilize different programs, such as the Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE).
This program has a couple of different parts to it. First, we have the travel experience. Then, there are two weekend retreats in Pittsburgh, one in the spring and one in the fall. Lastly, there is a Community Engagement Experience (CEE) to spread awareness about a topic chosen by the students to their community. Here is some more information about the scholarship and its requirements.
Stay tuned: My next post will introduce you to the other three Viras from Arcadia and share their experiences with Arcadia University’s programs. It will also contain some highlights of study abroad experiences from Alexis Fisher, a STAMP executive board member.