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Spain With and Without the “s”

“How was Spain?” asked a friend who I hadn’t seen all summer.  “It was…” My voice faltered before landing on the only word I thought would be appropriate to use.  “Good. It was good.”  “Just good?” they asked, raising an eyebrow.  I quickly laughed off my verbal misstep and chalked it up to my fatigue before changing the subject. The true answer — the kind you don’t casually drop in post-summer small talk — was more complicated than “good.” 

Before beginning the U.Va. in Valencia program, I had heard people sing its praises. They boasted about their Spanish summers complete with wild touristic escapades, frequent beach trips with new best friends and no shortage of tinto de verano. The thought of a picture-perfect study abroad trip was enough to quell whatever nerves I had — but that image didn’t last long. It wasn’t that I encountered a series of misfortunes or anything that could make for a study abroad horror story. In fact, I had many things to be grateful for. I had a kind host mom, great professors and roommates that I got along well with. 

Still, I couldn’t help but feel down most days. Although I’d spent time abroad before — last year, I spent a month walking the Camino de Santiago — I had never felt so homesick for such an extended period of time. Minor nuisances like the lack of air conditioning began to feel insurmountable and I increasingly craved the familiarity of my own bedroom.  All the while, I grew stressed about all the things I had to deal with, some of which I didn’t have any control over. I was starting a virtual internship, dealing with family matters and watching as money left my bank account without being replenished as I wasn’t actively working.

Most importantly, I missed the sense of community I felt before I left. My closest friends all stayed in the States, and some even spent their summers in Charlottesville. While I had some truly wonderful people around me, making plans and building relationships often felt difficult in the short and busy four weeks I spent in Spain. 

What’s more — if I’m being honest — I wasn’t overly fond of the program itself. I had dedicated professors and a good homestay, but I didn’t fall in love with the city of Valencia or feel that my cultural horizons were expanded all that widely. My classes weren’t exactly more immersive than those I’d taken in Charlottesville and Valencia just wasn’t a city that offered me a sense of place.  Even though I knew it did me no good, I spent a lot of time ruminating on what my summer might’ve looked like if I had made different plans. I couldn’t help but imagine scenarios where I was somewhere else, doing something else. 

Any one of those challenges — to some degree — could be expected. But taken all together, day after day after day, it was clear that something wasn’t quite right. I should be enjoying this, I thought to myself —l didn’t want to be ungrateful or cynical, but I felt like I couldn’t bring myself to be joyful.  As time went on, I did adjust to life in Valencia. The wave of anxiety I experienced peaked and began to subside during the latter half of the program. It helped that I maintained lots of communication with my support system back home — even from afar, loved ones kept me afloat. 

After the program, I found myself reflecting on the experience with a couple of classmates. As we swapped jokes, hot takes and struggle stories about our time in Valencia, I came to feel a newfound sense of solidarity. It was validating to hear that they also made lots of long-distance calls and had similar thoughts about the city. 

When I was in the headspace that I had been in during the program, it seemed like so many people were living their best lives while I struggled quietly. The truth is that my experience wasn’t entirely uncommon — it’s just that it’s not the kind that gets talked about when selling study abroad programs. 

In retrospect, I can simply take my experience for what it was — a great opportunity, sure, but perhaps not the right one for me at the time.  When I think back on it now, I recall a piece of wisdom that my older sister shared over the phone. She reminded me that people often place weighty expectations on certain experiences — they’ll say that high school or college or a term abroad is the best time of your life. However, the reality is different for many people — and that’s completely okay. I don’t rank my month in Valencia among the best times of my life. I don’t need to. 

Although my experience wasn’t exactly magical, I won’t spend my days mulling over alternate realities that could’ve been. I don’t think that going to Valencia was the best decision I could’ve made, but I’m grateful for the good parts of my study abroad and doubly grateful for what it taught me. All that to say — don’t sweat it if your experience of something isn’t quite the way you dreamed it to be. Take from it what you can and continue to practice gratitude.