What I’ve Learned Through Study-Abroad

¡Hola amigos! With just a few more weeks left in this beautiful country, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on things I’ve learned, my growth, and how I’ve changed since arriving. While it’s difficult to name all of the ways I’ve changed (I’m sure to discover changes once I return to Holland), I’m going to try my best to generalize these changes so that all study-abroad students can relate.


 

PHYSICAL CHANGES

First of all, there will be physical changes after studying abroad. I’m near the equator, but no matter how much sunscreen I wear, I inevitably became more tan. If you’re used to living in a sunny climate and study abroad in a cloudier, sun-less climate then you’re likely to return to your home country with a paler, lighter complexion.

Next, depending on how well (or not) you eat in your host country, you’ll most likely either gain or lose weight.  At the beginning of our program, our directors told us that in most cases women tend to gain weight and men tend to lose weight. But all of that depends on how well you treat your body and your overall mental health. For example, if you’re having a hard time adapting to a new environment you might have a loss of appetite for new foods and lose weight.  Or you might have sleepless nights adjusting to the jet-lag and new sleeping sounds (for me, it was all of the cars honking and gas trucks beeping at 6 A.M. every morning).

Lastly, you might gain a new scar or two depending on the different adventures you embarked on in your host country. I have a ton of scabs on my legs that will eventually scar over from scratching all of my bug bites. If you’ve witnessed something traumatic in your host country, then you’ll likely be left with an emotional scar as well (this should be dealt with by seeking counseling provided by your host school or home school upon return to the U.S.). This leads me to the next set of changes…

MENTAL CHANGES

Studying abroad is one of the greatest ways to mature, grow in your knowledge of cultures beyond your own, and become open to new ways of thinking. Even if you travel to a country with a culture similar to your own (i.e. a mexicana studying abroad in América Latina… en Ecuador), you’ll still be able to learn more about your own culture and the new culture you’re immersed in.

In my own experience, I thought it would be easy studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country because of my Mexican background. What I learned is that although the two countries share many Latin American customs, they each have their own dialects and ways of thinking.

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Learning with my friends in an interactive museum on the equator

I’ve also found some similarities between United States culture and Ecuadorian culture, so I find that interesting as well. I think that because I come from a Latina background, I was able to adapt faster to the culture here than most of my other classmates who came from different backgrounds in the U.S.

Lastly, my classmates and I have changed mentally by learning about the history, environment, and language of this country, but we’ve learned most from the daily interactions we have with Ecuadorians. If it’s possible to stay at a homestay in your host country when studying abroad, I would highly encourage you to do so. You’ll be surprised how much you learn from your homestay family about the culture and from hearing about your classmates’ homestays. Plus, if your ideologies clash with theirs you’ll have a great opportunity to learn from a different perspective (but if you really can’t get along, you can always inform a program director and they can find a better homestay for you)!

SAFETY CHANGES

One amazing thing about living in the U.S. (and especially in Holland, MI) is that you usually aren’t concerned about your safety. We have awesome security forces that work to maintain our safety at all times. Living in a country where security can be an issue will teach you (just as it has taught me) to be more aware of your surroundings and cautious.

It’s important to take care of oneself, so when you travel to a new country keep in mind that there will be different threats than ones that you are used to back at home. In Holland, I’m alert for the occasional tornado watch or winter storm alert. I practiced fire drills and safety drills in case of a school attack from an armed stranger. In Ecuador, I had to keep in mind that I was surrounded by a few active volcanoes that may or may not erupt while I was here. I also had to make sure that I looked out for my personal safety and belongings whenever I left the house because of the pick-pocketers in the big city. Besides that, we were warned about potential earthquakes although we did not imagine that a serious one would ever occur while we were studying abroad here.

What I want to say is that there are dangers everywhere, but depending where you are in the world the dangers might be different. Studying abroad has taught me that you should do everything in your control to stay safe, but there are just some circumstances that are out of your control that you may have to deal with. Try your best to stay positive and take everything as a learning experience; these are the things that will end up changing you.

SPIRITUAL CHANGES

The last type of change you will likely face is a change in spirituality. Think about how religions are different all over the world and how your religion may not be the dominant one in your host country. It’s okay not to actively practice your religion at a place of worship if there aren’t any places nearby where you can do that.

However, if you do find it easy to practice your religion in your host country, then do so… and learn more about it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep learning about something you care so deeply about. If you feel like spreading the word, then do so, but keep in mind that others may have completely different ways of viewing the world, religion, and spirituality. Just be respectful.

Along with that, you can also learn about new religions from your host country. It’s always exciting to see how people think and view life and death in a different culture or religion. It’s even more exciting when you can find ties between two or more religions in one single religion. Connecting a new religion to your own can expand your way of thinking and can also help you see that we are all connected in one way or another. After all, todos somos humanos.

I hope that you can relate to some of the changes I’ve experienced. For those of you who haven’t studied abroad (yet), I hope this helps prepare you for the journey you have ahead. Para todos, ojalá que hayan aprendido sobre mis experiencias de intercambio.

Final note: I would like to dedicate this post to the people of Ecuador after living through one of the most destructive earthquakes to strike the country. The Ecuadorian northwest coast is mostly destroyed leaving many people in need of assistance, supplies, food, and shelter. Any donations are helpful while the country begins to rebuild itself and continue to search for people under the rubble. I’m asking for any kind of help for my host country. There are a few websites where donations can be received: My.Care.org, Generosity.com, WorldVision.org, and YouCaring.com (this site donates directly to the town of Canoa which faced a lot of destruction). Thank you ahead of time for your generosity and donations and for helping a country that has found a place forever in my heart! Muchas gracias por todo #UnidosConEcuador #PrayforEcuador

{an afternoon at the finca}

Everyday we are responsible for our own lunches and get to venture out into town and find an almuerzo place. A traditional Ecuadorian almuerzo consists of a bowl of soup and a main plate of chicken or fish. Most of the almuerzo restaurants around town are really good, but there is one close to the university that is our favorite: ‘El Mas Querido’. The name “El Mas Querido’ literally translates to ‘The Most Liked/Wanted’ which is perfect because it really is, in my opinion, the best. Since we go to this restaurant everyday the owners of the restaurant have gotten to know us and come up and talk to us when we arrive.

Today one of the owners, Moises, invited us to his farm (finca) up in the highlands. The highlands are a completely different atmosphere compared to the main area of town; the air is less humid and it rains once a day, there is also green everywhere as ground cover and trees.

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The view from El Junco in the highlands

IMG_7440We took a taxi up into the highlands, rolled up a dirt road to the farm and were greeted by a group of cows and chickens.

Overall it only took $2 for the taxi there and back so it was totally worth it! Once we got to the farm Moises took us on a walk through all the different fields, showing us tricks to know when the fruits are ripe and answering all our questions about the various fruits we were finding. A lot of the fruits found here are completely different from anything you would find in the States; take guava for example, the texture is like eating straight cotton but it has a flavor that makes you want to keep eating it.

The inside of the guava fruit
The inside of the guava fruit
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Walking through the piña field

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One of my favorite things about Ecuador, and I know I’m going to miss when I come back is all the fresh fruit juice. Ecuadorians are able to take any fruit and whip it up into an incredible juice.

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Guanabana
The gourds from this tree were originally used to carry water

Once we had our backpacks full of fruit and our hands sticky with mango juice we headed back to the main part of the farm were we played volleyball with Moises’ son, Brian, and took pictures in an old tree. To take the picture we had to climb an old, rickety ladder and position ourselves in the tree so Brian could be our little photographer. Once we got up in the tree a few of the branches were in the way; Moises took out his machete and just started hacking away at the branches, we could feel the vibrations of the machete through the rest of the tree and held on tight so we didn’t fall to the ground. After we took all the pictures we needed we heard the honk of the taxi and we packed up our stuff to head back.

Not that I haven’t been loving the beach life, because I have, but the trip to the farm was perfect timing and just what I needed to switch up the island monotony, and proved to me that sometimes you have the most fun when you do something out of the ordinary.

It’s Almost Adventure Time!

“Are you excited?” “Are you packed?” “Are you nervous?” “Are you ready?” The four questions I don’t seem to mind responding to. The answers? “Do you want this week’s or last?”  Truth is, my emotions about leaving for Alicante, Spain are all over the place. I am thrilled, nervous, confused, worried (a little), happy. All of those things. And they change daily. From the travel time, to the arrival, to my life transitioning to Spanish, to moving in with a family I’ve never met, to starting classes in a foreign land, to being completely independent in a place far, far away. You could say there is a lot going on in my mind. This week- I’m mostly excited, if I am honest. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m about to embark on the greatest adventure I’ve ever taken- that’s for sure. I’m excited for a new culture, family, cuisine, school, group of friends, set of opportunities, way of life. And I’m sure I will discover more new things to enjoy.   Since I am a Holland resident, I have frequented Hope’s campus this past week to spend a few more hours with my friends as they trickle into town. It’s been both a blessing and a hardship. A blessing to enjoy their presence and see them one or two times more before I leave, and a hardship as I watch them unpack their dorm rooms and cottages knowing I won’t be able to share in the joy of the Fall semester and greeting new faces on campus. All the while, I feel extremely joyous to be stepping out of my comfortable Holland, MI bubble. I’d be lying if I denied that I was feeling lots of different things. But I’d also be lying if I said I wanted to stay. I guess I should say- I’m sad to leave, but I’m so ready to go. And I may or may not be packed. 🙂

So far…

Estatua de la PazAs I continue with my stay here in the city of Guanajuato, I realize that I am getting more and more used to the lifestyle here. I am getting much closer to my host family, they are very caring. It is interesting to think that there are many Mexicos, not only one. With that I mean that the lifestyle here in Guanajuato can be completely different from the north, south, east, and west of the country.  There is many differences from state to state and even from the state of Guanajuato itself. My host family’s house is huge, from the terrace I can see the whole city, the view is beautiful.

Most importantly they are committed to help me feel at home. I have gone several times with them to Leon. I have to be honest the houses that we visited are very nice, they are upper middle class homes.  As for my classes I have made new friends and it definitely is a joy to be more emerged into the culture in a more academic way. I have learned new words at the college level, and I am striving to keep on reading books! Right now I am reading Octavio Paz “Laberinto de la Soledad.” This book has opened my eyes to so many things…. I love my stay here in Guanajuato and I would not change it for the world. Not only am I learning so much about my country, I am also learning tons about myself.