Study in Spain: My study abroad experience

Monika Barrios, Cleveland State University Alum, USA

October 15, 2019 11:53 AM

I have always had a passion for travel.  My parents would take my brother and me to Europe as often as we could financially manage, to visit family and to learn about where we came from. My father came to the United States with his two brothers and his parents from Romania in 1975. My mother was born in the US, however her mother is also from Romania and her father is from Hungary. I believe that my travels internationally as a young child taught me so many things about life, acceptance of other cultures and tolerance.  I felt that if I gained these experiences through personal travel, I would have far more to gain if I was there for educational purposes.

La Decisión (The decision)

The decision to study abroad came to fruition while I was exploring placements to complete the required practicum for my undergraduate degree at a public university in Ohio.  While I envisioned and dreamt of the benefits of a cross-cultural exchange opportunity and how it could enhance my academic experience, I never fully understood or could begin to comprehend the way it would impact my life.

I was informed that would not receive credit towards by practicum by participating in a study abroad experience.  I didn’t understand how the faculty and department couldn’t comprehend the importance and the benefits of traveling abroad for education.  I made the decision to take a semester off from my studies and enroll in an internship program in Spain.  I met with an advisor in the study abroad office at my university to learn about all that the department had to offer.  I applied with a company that would send me to Barcelona.  The company would do all of the ground work and research job placements within the city and provide a match based on individual interests and goals.  My goals were to improve my Spanish-speaking abilities, immerse myself in a new culture and gain real-world experiences that I could apply to my life and my future career.  In 2010, I was on track to graduate with a BS in Education, with a focus in Allied Sports Professions: Sports Management, so I requested a match with a sports team in Barcelona, specifically basketball, as I was comfortable and took interest in the sport.  The director was incredibly helpful throughout the entire process and worked hard to find me a good placement. 

After extensive communication with the director and several Skype interviews to gauge my interests and goals, I was placed with a basketball team that participated in a recreational league in the Barcelona area.  I packed my bags and set out for my 3-month excursion to Barcelona.  I do wish to point out that the entire concept of traveling alone, to a foreign country, where I wouldn't know anybody, was very new and frankly quite scary.  As much as I enjoyed learning about other cultures and immersing myself in them, I was very close to my family and enjoyed the comforts of home.  I knew this would be a challenge and I would face many obstacles, both mentally and emotionally.  I was open to the challenge, knowing that the experiences I will encounter and the lessons I will learn, will be invaluable to both my personal and professional life.

El Principio (The beginning)

I arrived in Barcelona feeling equally excited and anxious.  I was excited for this opportunity to learn new things, meet new people and test my skills.  Not knowing what situations I would encounter and putting myself in a position that is out of my comfort zone caused anxiety.  There were so many questions and concerns that I tried to rationalize within hours of arriving.  Would the team be a good fit for me?  How would I get by when I don't speak the language well, especially since they speak (and insist that you speak) Catalan?  What are my roommates going to be like?  What is the work culture like?  As a study abroad student or intern, you encounter a range of emotions and feelings.  You will encounter highs and lows.  It's about how you react to situations you face and the lessons you take from these opportunities that ultimately shapes you into the person you were destined to become.

El Trabajo (The job)

As with any job, within the first couple of days, we were taking part in orientation about the program, meeting with instructors to schedule Spanish classes, learning about the transportation system and how to get around town and safety.  As part of the program, we were equipped with a free, full immersion two-week Spanish course.  You could certainly continue your studies, but it was fairly costly through the program we were enrolled in.  I opted to learn and continue my education on my own.  The program was well organized, interesting and engaging.  The program directors were passionate about Barcelona and the opportunities it offered, which made the experience all the more enjoyable. 

I met the team that I would work with the first day.  My initial reaction was that there didn’t appear to be that much structure or that I would have a set agenda, as this was more of a recreational team that I would assist with.  If you know anything about the Spanish work culture, you’ll know understanding and living the word Mañana is the key to success.   Mañana means tomorrow in Spanish.  It is a concept where there is no rush on anything and that it can be done tomorrow.  You will see this flow throughout many parts of life.  Things aren’t addressed as efficiently or as quickly as they would be in America (in the business sense) and generally people are never on time.  As an American, I found this very difficult to understand and conform to.  We are a society and culture of immediate gratification, punctuality and have those same high expectations for others.  Within the first few weeks, I was really excited to get started. I had so many ideas that I wanted to implement and work with the coaching staff on but quickly the excitement faded and it felt as if nothing would get accomplished.  One of the players I became friends with, had lived in the United States for a brief amount of time, so he understood and could relate to my struggles.  I was so glad that we were able to maintain our friendship as we were recently able to reunite when I traveled back to Barcelona this past spring.  Ultimately, I felt a sense of accomplishment when I presented my final project to the coaching staff.  It was a game plan to host a 3 on 3 basketball tournament, with all of the logistics outlined.  It was presented in Spanish and I thought they were very receptive to my ideas.  The team ended up hosting a tournament a couple years later and I may or may not have been a part of it, but I’d like to hope that I planted the seed.    

En Casa (At home)

Of course, there is the home life as well.  I requested to have roommates that were not American, so that I would be forced to practice my Spanish skills and embrace the opportunity.  As one can expect, it is a challenge to live with new people, more so with those that you have never met and are not from the same culture as yours.  There were certainly some uncomfortable situations that we had encountered and had to adjust but it was all part of the learning experience.  These situations shouldn’t steer you away from the desire to study abroad.  Although at times difficult, you are learning how to handle uncomfortable situations tactfully and professionally.  It’s a lot like when you move out for the first time to college.  I can’t speak from personal experience, since I lived at home throughout my years but I can imagine the circumstances are very similar.  I still keep in touch with one of my former roommates to this day.  We recently had the opportunity to meet up in his new home in Florida.  He is originally from Venezuela, which is how I became roommates with him.  We were able to meet each other’s partner and able to reminisce about our experiences and laugh about our time in Barcelona.  He is one of the several life-long relationships that I maintain; and one of the many reasons that I hold my study abroad experience to such a high regard.

Vive la Vida (Live life)

Study abroad internships aren’t just all work and no play.  For one, the director of the company was absolutely fantastic and did an amazing job engaging the students and providing educational and cultural activities to take part in, so that we could experience the culture first-hand.  Within the first few weeks, we were doing cava tastings, taking cooking classes to learn how to make paella (rice dish), gazpacho (a cold soup) and Crema Catalan, a dessert that is similar to Crème Brulee, and taking in the culture by visiting the incredible museums and sites the city of Barcelona had to offer.  We were able to experience two major festivals while in Barcelona, which really showed us the culture of the city.  In addition to local activities, we took two weekend trips, one to Girona and one to Granada, a city in the southern part of Spain.  The ability to travel from city to city and even country to country with such ease was different for me as an American - where despite driving four hours would still be in the same state of Ohio.  This is one of the greatest benefits to studying abroad: the ability to travel to different countries and explore other cultures.  Not only is it easy to get from place to place, but the cost to travel by train or air can be fairly inexpensive as well.  I utilized this benefit by traveling to Germany to visit family over a long weekend as well as took an opportunity to travel to Morocco.  The trip was offered through a cultural exchange program, which sent the students who were in Morocco to Barcelona.  I knew I would probably never have the opportunity to take a trip to Morocco, so I signed up and went with a small group of students.  It was a trip of a lifetime and to date, is one of my favorite trips that I have taken.  Many students took the opportunity to travel to other countries while studying abroad in Barcelona.  In addition to Germany and Morocco, other students traveled to Italy, Ireland, Greece, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland.  The study abroad programs open the doors to exploring many new cultures.  Even if you aren’t able to travel due to financial or time restraints, the opportunity to meet other people from different countries becomes more accessible, due to the fact that the EU is so easily traveled. 

El Fin (The end)

The decision to study abroad was not an easy one.  For me, I had to put off graduation another semester and pick up and move for three months to a place where I would not know a soul.  I found that to be the most difficult, because I am very close to my family and at that point, I hadn’t even moved away for college.  The study abroad program was a true test of my self-confidence and self-motivation.  It was an opportunity for me to grow as a person, which I didn’t think I needed.  I had to learn to do things on my own and ask for help when I was in tough situations – and not in my native language.  I faced adversity on numerous occasions and at the time, it was incredibly stressful.  It helped shape me into a more confident and open person, and I am forever grateful.  I wouldn’t change my decision to study abroad in Spain and I encourage anyone who has any doubt, to make the leap, as it will change your outlook on life.  It did for me and while I didn’t know it at the time, I found that there is something truly magical about Spain.  The magic stays with you and somehow, it always brings you back.

3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying Abroad

  1. Time passes very quickly. Make the most of it and put yourself out there.
  2. Not everyone can be trusted or wants to be your friend. Be aware of your surroundings and keep your wits about you.  If something feels off, it probably is.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make language mistakes. While many people spoke English, they were more comfortable speaking in their native language and I could have done a better job in preparing and speaking Spanish.

5 Must-Haves to Bring With You When Studying Abroad

  1. An open mind and willingness to adapt (i.e. traditions, customs, way of life). You’re in a different country to your own.
  2. A Journal – You won’t always have your phone!
  3. Something personal/ emotional from home (e.g. framed picture of family or friends). It will help your new space feel more like home.
  4. Buy stamps (when you arrive) and send postcards to friends and family back home. Everyone loves getting mail!
  5. A Dictionary – Try to learn the language of the country you’re in while studying abroad.  Not only does it show your interest in the culture, it looks great on a resume!



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