I decided to study abroad in Valencia, Spain my second year of college. It’s sort of what started all of this. Before going to Valencia, I had only ever taken those 1-week vacations to Mexico with my family—a.k.a. the “American pays a shit ton of money to drink and sit on a beach trip”
Without a doubt, going to Valencia was the best decision of my life. I know it’s a cliché. I know you’re thinking Oh great, tell me more about how Europe made you a better person. And I don’t blame you. But at the same time, it’s kind of true.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m still a stone, cold Slytherin through and through—but I came back with a greater sense of confidence in myself and my abilities. In Spain, I was more alone than I had ever been before, and suddenly I had to learn how to function like an actual adult. Needless to say, I spent my first month in Valencia in a constant state of fear and confusion. I didn’t know how to live in a city, and I definitely didn’t know how to live in a city that spoke Spanish.
On my first Sunday there, I lost my credit card to an ATM. The banks were closed and I honestly had no idea what to do in that situation. I’m ashamed to say I never really used an ATM before. So I stood there. For an hour and a half. In January.
I eventually flagged down a man on the street and asked what to do. In hindsight, the phrase “an A-T-M ate my card” definitely did not translate well into Spanish. This poor, bewildered man pulled out his phone and the only thing I understood him saying was, “Ella no habla Español.” Eventually, he walked off and I was alone again. I stood by that ATM for another hour before giving up and returning home. After brokenly explaining to my host mom what had happened, she said “Why don’t you just go back tomorrow and pick up your card?” It was that easy.
There was never a moment that I didn’t feel out of my element in Spain, and I learned to love it. Mistakes were made and lessons learned. By the end of my stay in Europe, I had traveled to Paris, Prague, and Italy alone. I translated for the University of Valencia, and I finally figured out how to pull the heads off of shrimp without squirting brain juice all over myself…or crying.
It’s hard to describe how much growing-up I did in those four months. Even now my mom still marvels about how I’ve become a different, more confident person. Since then, I’ve gone skydiving, and gotten second and third jobs so that I could continue to travel.
You study abroad to experience something different, to have an experience you can tell people changed the trajectory of your life. So yeah, choosing where you’re going to study abroad is kind of a big deal. With the literal world at your fingertips, how do you choose where to go?
Below are some of the things I considered while choosing where to go. Answering these questions eventually led me to Spain, something I will never regret. In fact, the only people who’ve regretted my decision are the ones who have to listen to me rant about Spain day in and day out.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
1. Do you want to learn a language?
For obvious reasons, it’s important to consider the spoken language of any country you’re going to visit—especially if it’s for an extended period of time. Sometimes the language is the reason you’re going in the first place. After all, immersion is the fastest way to learn. It’s a sink or swim scenario.
I went to Spain specifically to learn Spanish. My program was immersive, and English was not allowed at the school. While I know I would have loved to go to Italy or Greece, I also knew that Spanish was the second most common language found in the United States.
2. What are you studying?
I’m not going to lie, I decided to minor in Spanish solely to justify going to Spain for four months. At the time, I was an English major, but didn’t really want to spend a winter in England. Yes, I am that petty.
In most cases, the curriculum should come first. What are you studying? How does the school you’re looking at measure up? I didn’t have to worry about this because the program I joined was simply my school in a different country (i.e. the University of Virginia in Valencia). That and I was going for Spanish and figured they didn’t need a special accreditation for it. I was 80% sure that my professors from Spain would speak Spanish. It was a risky gamble, but what can I say? I’m an adrenalin junkie.
3. How comfortable do you want to feel when you study abroad?
I feel like this is a weird question, but I also know that it’s one of the most important—especially for first-time travelers. How out-of-place are you willing to feel? Going to Europe will definitely allow you to experience other cultures, but this is nothing compared to the cultural shock you may feel traveling through Asia (if you’re from a western country).
I experienced many more unfamiliar social niceties in Thailand—for example—than I did in Spain. I once pointed to a Buddha statue in Thailand, and immediately knew I had made a mistake. It was an accident, but still embarrassing. To study abroad in a culture so different from your own, you have to be willing to feel more lost, experience more embarrassment, and approach everything with a more open mind. This, of course, is the best study abroad trip.
4. How much paperwork do you want to fill out?
This is more of a logistics thing. Because my program was UVa in Valencia, I didn’t have to fill out any paperwork to transfer class credit. Technically, I never left UVa. As a sad, lazy excuse for a student, this appealed to me. If you’re looking at a school that no student from your school has ever gone to before, transferring credit may be a bit of a process. Additionally, depending on the country you choose, more or less work will be required for the VISA.
5. Do you want to pack a bikini or a parka?
This matters dammit! The trip is hardly going to be fun if you spend the whole time shivering and amputating hypothermic limbs. So yeah, I’m a warm weather kind of girl. All of those sun burns may come back to bite me in the future, but I’ll be damned if I lose a toe.
6. Do you want to travel on the weekends?
Certain countries have a better infrastructure than others…or at least faster transportation. If you want to cheaply visit a different country every other weekend, Europe is your best bet. Trains go almost everywhere, and planes are very affordable. A round-trip, two-hour flight from Valencia to Paris only cost $120.
In contrast, when I was in Argentina, a round-trip, two-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Iguazú cost about $400. And this is after we searched online in Spanish (apparently there is such a thing as tourist prices). I found that the best way to travel in South America was by bus. If you don’t have a lot of time off, you may not be able to see as much as you want to.
7. Is there financial aid available?
Because most college students are broke as hell.
“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.”