BA 2006 (English and Spanish)
I grew up in Fennville, Michigan, a small rural town that thrives off of its fruit harvesting industry. Growing up in that atmosphere directly affected my perception of the Hispanic community and I began building an affinity for Latin culture at an early age. My town was 30 percent Hispanic and many of my best friends growing up were from Mexico.
Santander is a beautiful place that has a little bit of everything and was at a very central location for visiting all the great things Spain has to offer. It is a town about the size of Grand Rapids (or at least it seemed to be from the point of view of someone who did not drive), but seems to have the mentality of a place like Grand Haven. By that I mean it has a small town feel and it is famous for its beaches that are of the highest ranked in Spain. I loved it there. I walked almost everywhere I wanted to go, but the buses were easily accessible as well. There were plenty of fun shops, great fashion, interesting restaurants and even little pieces of Americana culture like La rana verde, a little burger shop a few streets up from La Avenida de la Reina.
Mountains near Santander that are fun to hike
While at La Universidad de Cantabria, I studied courses in Spanish grammar, conversation and Spanish culture. The courses in grammar and conversation where instructed by teachers from the university and the culture class was instructed by a WMU professor. It was a nice way to be eased into things to have the advantage of the WMU liaison there with you. The way the Spanish professors instructed was a little different than what I was used to from Western so it was really nice to have our professor there with us as well.
Cathedral in santiago de Compostela
During the second month we moved up to a higher level of grammar and conversation and no longer had the culture class. By then though, basically going out for your evening walk or chatting with a group of chavales on the steps was a daily installment of culture. That was one of the most amazing things about studying abroad. I may have went to classes four times a week to learn the information that I needed to help me communicate better and know the structure of what I was saying, but for the most part I learned from interaction with the people of Santander. Talking to strangers on the steps of the plaza or in the cafeteria at school did the most for me. It took away some of the fear that I have of speaking to native speakers and made me a lot more comfortable with making mistakes and truly using the language.
The palace in Santander
My academic goals have changed because of this experience and the confidence it has given me. I am now considering continuing college to earn a doctorate in Spanish and hope that in the next 6-8 years I will be able to move to Mexico and pursue higher education in an all-Spanish speaking environment. Before going to Santander I would have never considered seeking Spanish for my doctorate, let alone in a Spanish-speaking country. However, the experience that I had made me realize that if I do not go and live in a country where Spanish is the primary language spoken, I will never be able to say that I speak Spanish. I want to be more than a student of the language. My experiences abroad have shown me that that is an attainable goal and I cannot wait to begin the path towards it.
Besides the formal instruction I received in those months, the information I attained from being in a Spanish-speaking culture improved my ability to communicate by giving me more confidence, fluidity and introducing me to some of the nuances of the language that one does not pick up from a university text book. I also learned a lot about how to use inflection and body language to enhance my speaking much like the Spanish do. It was a really awesome feeling to spend an entire afternoon chatting with someone and not using a dictionary to find just the right word. You learn to circumnavigate and express yourself differently. When I started I never went anywhere without my dictionary, but after a few weeks of not winding up in jail or in Portugal, I decided to leave it at home. Because of that, I was able to communicate more freely and more confidently.
The whole group at a Cathedral in Santiago
Study abroad changed my perception of myself, my country and my culture. I no longer fear going outside of the US and look at it like more of an adventure that I cannot wait to take again. This experience greatly increased my confidence in Spanish--three months of study in Santander propelled me further than could have another three years of studying out of a book. The experience of being completely immersed in a culture cannot be duplicated in a classroom. You have to study abroad. It will change you. Punto.