When I was in middle school, my best friend’s family hosted an international student on a summer exchange program. I was absolutely and totally engrossed by watching this student’s experience in the United States, learning English and constantly being exposed to newness. I wanted very much to be in his shoes: in a new land breathing in new air and a new way of looking at the world. Since that summer, I knew that I needed to make it a priority during college to travel overseas and learn a new language.
Six years later, I prepared to leave for a year abroad in Granada, Spain. I could barely believe that I would be getting ready to take college level courses in Spanish, let alone at a Spanish university! However, what I knew of Spanish and what was required to qualify for my school’s program in Granada were two separate things. I did not know Spanish grammar, yet I knew that if given the time, I could speak the language. Something deep within me just knew that I was capable, despite everything in my past that had led me to think otherwise.
Trying to Keep Up
Diagnosed with a learning disability (LD) at age 5, I was told, in so many words, that I would not be able to do certain things, or at least it would be more difficult or take me longer than the average person to accomplish. Even though I was given the opportunity to attend a special school and learned how to “work the system” in order to succeed, I always had this internal struggle over whether I could fulfill my childhood hope of going overseas and learning a foreign language.
I forged ahead regardless of the constant reminders of how much longer it had always taken me to memorize, write, and write than other students. I felt an urgency to learn Spanish and it didn’t matter that I was slower in the process. Now that I look back on it, being successful in my overseas experience was more of a personal test than academic achievement.
Ahead of the Curve
Once I arrived in Spain, I hadn’t known the spoken language well enough to feel confident in my writing skills, but I had to quickly adjust to the pace of Spanish academic standards. Being someone who naturally reads slower than the average student, I knew I would be expected to do much more than my peers in Spain. Because of my LD, I have found that I am much more visual; therefore, I would write out every new Spanish word or phrase I learned in a journal I kept. I might have looked funny with my little notebooks, but that wasn’t the point-I was going to learn no matter how silly it looked to everyone else!
I relied solely on my interactions with the Spanish people for the true learning that took place during my year in Spain. I know now what experiential education means, and without this piece to the puzzle, I would never have become fluent in written and spoken Spanish.
I completely enveloped myself in Granadina affairs; I learned and actively danced the Sevillanas and Flamenco; partook in the feast of food and drink and the daily siesta; went to church services with my Spanish friends; and even found a boyfriend who was a professional indoor soccer player and took me all over the country! I hereby give thanks to all those who were patient with me while I struggled to learn their language and culture!
This immersion paid off: By the second semester, my learning curve was noticeably fast in comparison with others in the program. In fact, during my group’s farewell dinner, the directors of the program recognized me as having excelled more than anyone! I suspect it was my ability to be completely saturated in the Spanish culture that had enabled me to excel where my peers struggled.
Building an Inclusive World
The year following my experiences in Spain, I earned my B.A. in both Spanish and Intercultural Communication. In all honesty, I do not know if I ever would have learned Spanish had I not gone overseas. I’m so glad I had found the courage to apply for the exchange program so I could understand another way of living while finding my strengths.
There is a serious need for the involvement of all students in international exchange. I find study abroad programs that actively include people with disabilities to be significant building blocks toward the understanding, acceptance and inclusion of everyone, both here in the United States and abroad.