I am really struggling with this…
It just… looks so… BAD!
For the third time in three years, I am heading out to Spain at the end of the semester. And every time I arrive in Madrid, I feel like I have come home.
ARGH! Elitist, arrogant, snobby, Western-European-promoting, blinders-on-to-diversity JERK! Yes, that is me.
This is how it started: St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, second week of class in the first semester of my freshman year, I get called in to speak with my faculty advisor. Shoot! She ONLY speaks Spanish to you, and I am barely here and barely in college, and WHAT DID I DO WRONG???? Turns out that meeting would change everything. I wasn’t in trouble. Well, if you can call my blind devotion to Spain “trouble”, then I was about to be in for a lifetime of trouble.
“You need to study abroad next year, in Madrid.” “You’re wasting your time if you stay here next year.” “Your Spanish is at a level where you need to go.”
That was it. Some convincing on the part of my parents was necessary, but they don’t fool around with study abroad at St. Lawrence. They do it well and they are committed to doing it right for any student interested in it. I spent my sophomore year in Madrid, as well as the last half of my senior year. I spent another year there as a graduate student.
When I started working at The College of Saint Rose, there weren’t really any study abroad opportunities for our Spanish majors. You would have to transfer out of the college to study abroad, and when you transferred back in, no one could guarantee that your former aid package would still be there. Eventually we convinced the administration to sign an affiliation agreement with a program in Seville, Spain. They were a good fit for us and for our students. I went and visited most students that studied there in the first 5 years of our affiliation agreement.
Many of those students came home like me, organically different. Spain gets into your DNA and alters it permanently. In really great ways. Siesta? I’m in! A culture that celebrates relationships and conversation? Yes! Let’s go out for a walk? Absolutely, and maybe a great cup of coffee on the way.
But then I had that one student. There are students that cross every teacher’s path – they change your viewpoint dramatically, and make you wonder how you could have previously been so blind. This student, K, came to me after one semester and said “Why do you only talk about Spain? There’s so much else out there! I am NOT going to Spain!” The following year, K and her friend R applied to study abroad in Argentina. K and R eventually would have to change their plans, due to the extreme economic crisis at that time in Argentina. R ended up in Spain, but K persevered, and found a program in Chile.
K was right. Spain was a tiny little nation state, and the Americas still waited to be discovered.
I started on a journey, and was able to visit Chile, Argentina, Panama, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Each one of those countries has a unique learning opportunity to offer students, and I cannot say one is better than the other, or that Spain tops any of them. In fact, I have come to believe that Spain is not the best language-learning experience anymore. One of the side effects of the European Union is enhanced language ability: many Spaniards speak English, and decent English, these days. In fact, it might be possible to spend an entire semester there and not have to speak Spanish.
These days I tend to recommend that students look most closely at Argentina, Chile and Panama if they are looking to work on language skills. There’s more bang for your buck in those countries, too. Sure, you cannot travel to Paris for the weekend, but instead you can go from Atlantic to Pacific in 1 hour, or you can see glaciers and penguins. How many of your friends on Facebook or Instagram have penguin-and-me selfies?
Argh. For the third time in three years, I am headed back home. Home is here, but home is also there. I am embarrassed to say that. What if K finds out? Does this devotion mean I am a snob? Can it instead mean that at a very formative time in my life, I connected with a culture that was different than my own, and I wanted to adopt parts of that culture into my own life? Are these just shameless justifications? Or can I openly declare my love for Spain?
Stay tuned for details of the trip. Shameful, really!