Things I Wish I did Last Time I Studied Abroad in Spain

Today’s blog post comes to us from University of Vermont student & #APIabroad blogger Sophia Ma! She’s getting ready to study abroad in Salamanca, Spain. Interestingly, this is her second time going abroad! Today she’s sharing things she wish she knew or did the last time she studied abroad in Spain.

Sophia Ma and host mother in Spain

1. I wish I had spent more time with my host family.

There are numerous advantages of staying with a host family. You get the full immersion of Spanish culture, participating in family events, speaking Spanish every day, and the list goes on. While knowing all the benefits I had staying with a Spanish family, I, however, did not make the most out of it. And this later turned out to be one of my biggest regrets.

I lived with a single mom and her 28-year-old son in a small apartment near the city center. Like many Spanish moms, my host mom was a great cook. She would make paella, tortilla de patatas, all kinds of seafood, and even homemade Tiramisu! I did put on some study-abroad 15 (freshman year all over again), but I got a full taste of the Spanish gastronomy for sure. My host mom also had a daughter and three grandchildren, who came over to our house a lot. There were always family reunions, church meetings, friend gatherings and all kinds of events, but shame on me– I missed out on most of them. And the reason for that? Well, to start with, I was never home.

I made friends from all over the world in a short amount of time, participated in every school event, went out almost every night and more. While all these are positive things, I did lose many opportunities to bond with my host family. I still remember watching the World Cup with my host mom for the first and last time before I took off, and all I was thinking was “I wish I spent more time with her during my time here.”

Words have it that “you have to give up something to get something,” yet I didn’t keep the best balance between going out for tapas every night and staying home more to become part of the family. Let’s face it; you’re more likely to learn all the Spanish slang and inside jokes at a Spanish family dinner table than pub crawling with all your international friends every night.

I still talk with my Spanish mom once in a while, and I’ll visit her when I go back to Leon, but I could’ve gotten so much more out of my time with my Spanish family. If you’ll be staying with a family, try to find that balance, and you’ll end up with a zillion friends AND a home in Spain far away from home.

University of León for study abroad students in Spain

2. I wish I had studied Spanish hard while in Spain.

It’s no secret that studying abroad is one of the most fun times in our college career (and even in our entire lives). Still, we are studying abroad, so it goes without saying that we need to study while abroad.

I was directly enrolled at the University of León, so all my classmates were Spaniards, and all classes were instructed by Spanish professors. While some of my courses were also taught in Spanish at my home university, studying at a Spanish university was a whole different story. It wasn’t until my first class at the university that I realized my Spanish level was nowhere near where I needed it to be; everything I had learned seemed like a joke all of a sudden. For a long time, I barely understood what was going on in class but luckily, I had the best Spanish classmates who took notes for me, explained to me the class contents, and helped me study for exams. I finished my classes all right at the end, but to be honest, I could’ve learned a lot more had I known more Spanish.

The resources to learn Spanish in Spain are everywhere for study abroad students. There were classes from the language center; our university had weekly Tandem nights; even the Cathedral offered free Spanish lessons to non-native speakers. On top of everything, there were Spaniards everywhere to practice Spanish with (duh) and many more. While I took advantages of many of the resources, I could’ve tried a lot harder; I didn’t stick with taking classes at the language center, for example.

There’s no better way to learn a language than being in that country. And here we are, given the best opportunity to learn Spanish in Spain. Everybody has different motives to learn Spanish, and it doesn’t matter what it is, this is simply the best time to do it! One of my international friends in León had a shallow level of Spanish at the beginning of our program, but he took every single opportunity to learn Spanish harder than any of us did. Six months later, he was invited to give a speech at our farewell GALA, and as he spoke nearly fluent Spanish, everybody’s jaw dropped. It was hard to believe that my friend could barely form a sentence in Spanish just a semester ago.

It’s daunting to learn a new language and so much easier to cling to our native tongues, but once you get past the most challenging stage and reach a certain level, it’s a whole new world. Don’t wait till you come back home and only then realize you could’ve learned more Spanish while in Spain–start brushing up your Spanish now!!

3. I wish I had learned more about my host city BEFORE I went.

I studied in León, a historical and beautiful small city in northern Spain. The reason I picked León was simple: I figured that I could get more immersion out of a smaller place compared to big cities like Madrid or Barcelona. But that’s it! That’s about how much I knew about León before going there.

I didn’t realize that as one of the earliest cities in Spain, León is rich in culture, history, architecture, food and more. Although we had a city tour during Orientation Week, my brain was empty everywhere we went because I didn’t know much about the city.

History, culture, locals, music, festivals, food, drinks, dialects, etc. – There are so many aspects of a place that we can explore and what’s a better opportunity to get to know a place than living there? While it’s never too late to learn, had I done my homework before going, my experiences would’ve been a lot richer and more significant. Do the studies ahead of time because trust me, you will have much more fun at a local party when you know what people are actually celebrating for! Give yourself a fully immersed experience, and you’ll end up blending into the community like a local.

4. Last but not least, I wish I had blogged!

Guess why I’m blogging this time? Because I regret so much for not doing it the last time!

I thoroughly prepared myself before I left for Spain. I had my camera, my journal, and even my scrapbook to record every single day of my time in León. In the beginning, every day was new and exciting, and I was keeping track of my daily life well. I took pictures and videos of everything, wrote in my journal every day, scrapbooked once in a while. But after a couple of weeks, I found myself getting used to my Spanish life, and the “honeymoon stage” started to fade a little. I didn’t feel like I was studying abroad anymore. Instead, I felt like I was home (which I guess is a good thing). Many things didn’t seem as exciting – classes, tapas, nightlife… they all started to seem pretty normal. I was busy doing so many things and stopped to record my daily life–it all felt “causal.”

Sadly, just like most things always come to an end, so does studying abroad–faster that you’d think. I wasn’t fond of winter in León, but at the time, I wished the cold would stay forever, because the warmer it got, the less time I had in Spain. As spring approached, my time in León was also counting down, and I started cherishing every single day, every hour, and even every minute of my studying abroad time. I would take the “long-cut” to go to school just to pass through Plaza Mayor as much as possible; I would hang out with everybody every day as I realized it could be the last time; I was even staying up late just to feel like I was earning myself more time. Just like that, all my “casual and normal days” were becoming memories, and the hardest part was that I couldn’t slow anything down.

I wish I took a zillion pictures (I only took about 8,000), journaled every day, and blogged! We can’t stop time, but we CAN keep the memories forever. If I had blogged, I can look back at my studying abroad anytime and taste the sweetest moments in between my stories.

It all brings down to one point – you should blog! Or use any other method to record your studying abroad experiences, because before you know it, those moments become memories and trust me, you want to keep them!

Cheesy as it sounds, studying abroad has changed my life on so many levels, and I would do it a million times more if only I could. I know the same goes to probably everybody. I’m incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to study abroad in Spain once again, only this time I’ll make even more out of it. Make your list, learn my lessons and although we can’t do it all, let’s at least have as little regret as possible – I know I will!

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