Don’t Waste Your Study Abroad!

I imagine most of the people who read my little blog have already done their study abroad experience. But just in case! Or if you know someone who is preparing for theirs, please share! This thought popped into my head this morning, and maybe it’s there because someone needs to hear my thoughts. ūüôā

Chances are, if you’re majoring in a foreign language at almost any college or university, you’re going to be required to do a study abroad to a country (or perhaps region in your country) where that language is the dominant language. Some colleges have a plan ready that most students follow – I followed my university’s plan and went to Costa Rica. There were a few students who went off the beaten track and went to Spain or Ecuador, but not many. I was already busy enough with college, education field experiences, and working 2 jobs that the idea of researching and finding and setting up my own, separate study abroad experience was not an attractive option when the college was prepared to hand me one with very little effort on my part.

I absolutely don’t regret going to Costa Rica. My friends who didn’t go don’t regret their decisions to go elsewhere either. Both are good options. My college had been sending kids to the Instituto de Lengua Espa√Īola for years. It’s primarily a¬†year-long¬†Spanish language training program for people who wish to be missionaries in the Spanish-speaking world, but via some collaboration with my university, they had set up an intensive course for college students (usually from my college) to serve as a study abroad option. It was a pretty good program. We got to do a ton of awesome things, see a lot of the country, and we definitely got to hone our Spanish.

However Рthe school you attend during your study abroad is only one small part of the experience. My university sent 12 students the semester I went. We only had real classes Monday-Thursday afternoons. The rest of our time was spent volunteering (I spent some time in a preschool classroom, in an adult ESL classroom, and translating letters from children to English-speaking sponsors who paid their tuition at a school that catered to low-income families with elementary aged children), going on trips, learning to dance or cook, and, most importantly, with our families or each other.

Let me tell you about my family first. You may go into your study abroad thinking “I know all about this culture. I pretty much know what my family will be like.” You may be¬†very wrong. I think everyone in my group¬†went in thinking “Latin America has such a warm, welcoming, open culture. I’ll get to know my family and this will be awesome!” For some of us, that was absolutely true. Some of the people I went with (almost 6 years ago now) still Skype their host families. One girl recently¬†married the host brother of another member of our group.

But not every family was like that. First, host families do get paid for having you stay with them. They should. They’re feeding you, giving you a bed, a shower, and doing your laundry (or at the very least offering you a place to do your laundry). In the US hosting a foreign exchange or study abroad student is often looked at as a cultural opportunity. It’s very cool. In the case of my family, and the families of a couple other group members, it was an opportunity to make a little money. Not that they were mean or rude, just that they have had a continuous cycle of students rolling in and out of their homes. My family was not excited to look at my American money the way I was when my family hosted a pair of Chinese students. They’ve seen that stuff before from a dozen other students. Besides – American money is fairly common in Costa Rica (something I didn’t know before I went there).

My family was somewhat interested in my home. My host mom asked me about my family and my house. But the fact was – my family was¬†not what I expected. The semester before we left, we had to fill out a survey to help match us to the appropriate family. In that survey, one of the questions was something like “How important is alone time to you?” Being something of an introvert, I said “fairly important” or “I like to have some alone time each day” or something along those lines. Boy did I get what I asked for. I was sort of told before I left that, if you want to be alone, close the bedroom door; if it’s open, the family may feel comfortable coming in and talking, even if you don’t want them to.

So I got there, and my host family’s house was very nice, but I think we got some lines crossed. There was no TV in the family room, and no one seemed to be hanging out in there, so I went into my bedroom. I left the door open like I was supposed to, but for 3 months, I had no visitors.

My host family consisted of my host mom, her adult son (who worked and was in law school and seemed to have lots of friends, so he was rarely home when I was awake), her husband who was only home on the weekends (a taxi driver who had to work outside of the biggest city in the country? I suspect there’s something else there, but that’s a whole different issue), her married daughter who didn’t live with us, but who was there almost daily since my host mom babysat her 2-year-old daughter, and the maid who was there for a few hours in the middle of every weekday.

So they were busy people and it certainly wasn’t a full house, so of course I spent some time by myself. But we’d at least eat meals together, right? Nope. There was a dining room table, where I ate all my meals, while my host mom and her son either ate out back, or at an island in the kitchen. Even if we were eating at the same time. It seemed awfully strange to me. Thank goodness, for about 2/3 of the time I was there, she was also hosting another couple in her guest house out back, and the three of us ate together.

The¬†granddaughter¬†was at that totally-afraid-of-strangers stage and wouldn’t even let me get close to her until the morning I left.

Looking back, I realize that their “family room” was really out back on a covered porch, but I never felt comfortable just going out there (as I said I’m kind of an introvert. I literally avoid texting because I worry it might bother someone. Walking out to the back porch when others are talking and having fun was¬†way out of my comfort zone), and was never invited except once to watch a soccer game and once the night before I left for home.

So, was my family what I expected? No. Did I get to use as much Spanish with them as I hoped? Certainly not. Not that we never talked – just that we didn’t talk very much. There were a few bright spots. One night, I heard my host mom in the kitchen and it sounded like she was sorting coins. I kind of love sorting coins, so I went out to help her. We talked a little bit. She told me about the inflation problem that Costa Rica had and that lots of coinage had been changed in fairly recent years because of that. She was saving all the 1 col√≥n coins from before, and gave me a few to keep. It was a really nice moment. Unfortunately, it was one of only a few.

If your experience is like mine, let me give you a little advice: Speak Spanish (or whatever language) with someone else! Before we left, we were warned that the biggest regret of people returning from their study abroad is that they didn’t speak enough Spanish. In order to avoid that, my group and I agreed early on that after the first two weeks, we were going to try to speak Spanish with each other all the time. Didn’t happen. So I wasn’t speaking much Spanish with my family, and I was speaking almost no Spanish with my group when we weren’t in class. I did get a lot in class of course, and at the various places I volunteered, thank goodness. But I¬†wish I had found someone outside of my family to talk with more. If I could do it all over again, I’d be¬†much less timid, and I’d get out of the house more!

No doubt, my Spanish improved greatly while I was in Costa Rica. It was an excellent experience, and I absolutely¬†loved it. But it just makes me wonder – how much more¬†could¬†I have learned if I hadn’t wasted so much time being lonely? Now, I’m getting ready to spend 10 days in Spain, and you can bet that I’ll be speaking as much Spanish as I can possibly manage!


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Allison says:

    I agree! In Spain I lived with just an abuela who basically hosted students as a part time job. I was lucky that we usually ate dinner together, but I was hoping for more of a family. If I were to go back I would tell myself NOT to hang out with the other Americans and make more local friends!

    1. Melanie says:

      Exactly! Even if you’re in classes with other English speakers and your family doesn’t talk to you much, there are ways to make sure you get plenty of practice!

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