From Pamplona to Sevilla: Saying Yes to the Unknown

The concept of School Year Abroad (SYA) sounds insane when said plainly.

The concept of School Year Abroad (SYA) sounds insane when said plainly; it’s a program that sets teenagers free for nine months to explore foreign cities while they’re simultaneously going through the extreme highs and lows that come with being a young adult. It’s difficult to capture the feeling of what it’s like to spend IV Form year abroad in Spain. I could talk about the ample time I spent attempting to “culturally immerse” myself by drinking café con leche in local cafés, watching La Casa de Papel, learning how to make tortilla de patata or perfecting the dos besos, the customary Spanish greeting. I could write about the moments of culture shock such as religiously eating meals and snack (desayuno, almuerzo, comida, merienda and cena) at wildly different hours than we do in the United States. But none of that really explains the essence of an adrenaline-filled adventure every single day. The driving force of my exciting journey was my willingness to say yes without always knowing exactly what I was signing myself up for.

Sometime in October 2018, my host family took me to a Dani Martín concert. Spanish Punk Rock was both an unfamiliar genre and in an unfamiliar language. However, once I learned to leave my comfort zone, we laughed the whole night as we danced along to blaring guitar music and cheered in accordance with a man in an awkward chicken suit who was directing the crowd from the stage. The lyrics didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and I’m still not sure what a chicken had to do with anything, but nonetheless, the concert was an opportunity to create priceless memories with Eva and Maria, my host mother and sister, respectively.

Adventure sometimes came in the form of sporadic, short trips I took. Early on in the year, our school offered a day trip to Pamplona that my friends and I signed up for on a whim. “Why not?” we thought. We arrived, confident our Spanish would help us easily navigate through the city, but the street signs were predominantly in Basque. This happened to us again in Valencia where we frequently came into contact with Valencian, a dialect of Catalan. The more I traveled, asked questions, and interacted with locals, the more I understood Spain beyond its stereotypes as a land of flamenco dancers and of speakers with strong lisp, which was essential to opening my mind to the diversity of Spain and our greater world.

In late March, I had the perfect opportunity to expand my mind. I attended a lecture on the psychology of women in the modern feminist thought for my Capstone project about intersectional feminism. I diligently took notes while Dra. Elizabeth Palacios went through gender theory. It was one of those checkpoint moments when I realized that my brain was understanding words with little to no effort. As soon as I started to feel confident and comfortable, a curveball came my way. In response to the idea that gender intersects with various identifiers, a Spanish man suggested that race was a minor factor in the way women view themselves relative to religion. He then asked my friend and me what we thought, as we were the only black women in the room. Encouraged by my program director to respond, I started wracking my brain for words, but none of them seemed adequate for the necessary response. How do I disagree with this man respectfully? How can I respond with such a vastly different cultural context and understanding of race? Do I have to explain my life story to the whole room? In that situation, language proficiency wasn’t enough. To communicate effectively, I needed the type of cultural competency that can sometimes take a decade to develop. Just like my idea of a singular Spain, my notion of fluency was challenged. I didn’t ace my response––in fact, I fumbled over grammar that I would normally articulate with ease. In the following months when I had to discuss my cultural background while discussing current events in class or when I had political debates with host family, I was able to articulate myself with security. By allowing myself to get the answer to a question wrong, I made it easier for myself to get the answer right the next time. That’s really what SYA is all about: being wrong until you’re right. You speak dodgy Spanish until one day you’re able to order coffee at a local café without thinking or recount your day to your host family with fluidity.

When I said “yes” to SYA I had a very vague picture of what the year was going to look like. I lost sleep worrying about what my host family might be like, if I’d live distant from school, if I’d struggle in classes taught in Spanish and all the other details I had no control over. I am very grateful that I leaned into the fear of the unknown as it took me to Cordóba, Cadiz, Sevilla, Valencia, Barcelona, and even Paris. More importantly, I was able to deeply appreciate and understand a culture through firsthand learning in a way that no textbook can ever accomplish.

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