Gaining Two Perspectives: A Student’s Year Abroad

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is one of the many destinations James Berrigan has visited during his year abroad. (JAMES BERRIGAN/THE OBSERVER)

By JAMES BERRIGAN
Contributing Writer

They don’t tell you that your English will get worse.

I have been studying in Spain since the beginning of the fall 2016 semester. During the fall, I was a direct exchange student in Bilbao in the Basque Country, and this semester I am participating in the Fordham in Granada program. It’s been a wild ride. I’ve been to 15 countries since the beginning of September, with my travels during winter break included. My Spanish has improved, but nobody mentions that after speaking with so many non-native English speakers, you start to speak like one, too.

I have lived with Spanish families both semesters and the names of my host family members were practically all I knew going in to Bilbao. Five minutes after arriving in Bilbao and I had already learned a new Spanish insult—apparently an American towering over the local Bilbainos looks like an easy target for panhandlers. I came to appreciate the Basque Country and its many idiosyncrasies, not the least of which was the language, Euskera. I had no idea that I was studying in a hotbed of secession and Basque nationalism. Part of my daily routine was trying to understand the fresh graffiti from the night before spray-painted along my walk to the university. Coupled with their delicious pintxos and vino tinto, I left with a great, and certainly distinctive, impression of the Basque Country.

Studying as a direct exchange student means you’re offered a staggering amount of freedom. With minimal guidance during the few hour-long orientation sessions, a direct exchange student must find his own accommodations, figure out his class schedule and learn to navigate a foreign city. It was daunting, but also refreshing. I later realized that direct exchange students have much more freedom than normal American exchange students, who usually come through programs that guide them along the way. Being thrown into the situation forces you to step outside your bubble. I wouldn’t have overcome my self-consciousness of talking to native speakers if I hadn’t had to ask so many people for help the first week.

Now, as a student in Fordham’s structured Granada program, I am beginning to see the pros and cons of studying with a program. In Bilbao, I was forced to put myself out there to make friends and to plan my own adventures. With a program, your activities are planned for you and it’s easy to restrict yourself to only meeting other Americans. Being outside the program environment in Bilbao, I saw how the Americans tended to clump together, while the other exchange students, mostly Europeans, all mixed together with little regard for nationality.

“Seeing the way European students from different countries treat each other, and the ease with which one can travel through such a diverse continent, is a testament to the possibility of peaceful and beneficial coexistence.”

Whether you’re with a program dictates how you experience another staple of studying abroad: travel. I made plenty of mistakes and found myself in some tight situations, but it was part of the adventure. While sleeping in the Barcelona airport due to a canceled flight was not on my agenda, it made for a memorable experience. I learned plenty of new words that night when the airline announced at 3 a.m. that after an eight-hour delay, the flight was finally canceled. Unwillingly having a snake draped on your shoulders in Marrakech or arguing politics with a t-shirt vendor in Belgrade is not on any program’s itinerary, but made for some of the best stories from my first semester. A word of advice: double check where your ferry is taking you, or you may end up desperately trying to explain in French to a cab driver in a dark Moroccan port that you need to get to Tangier.

Traveling as a student in a program takes care of the hassle and logistical problems, but also limits the adventure and freedom. Needless to say, shenanigans are not encouraged and being stranded on the coast of Africa is never a good thing. Tending to stay within the group limits the fellow travelers you meet, especially those you might meet if you stayed in a hostel or were stranded in a bus station. However, traveling as part of a tour group ensures that you see the highlights and main attractions of the places you visit. Additionally, tour guides often provide you with a variety of interesting facts and tidbits that a solo traveler might miss. 

Studying abroad, and especially traveling, has forced me to step out of my comfort zone and it has put me in contact with people and cultures that I never would have experienced otherwise. My time in Europe has given me hope for the future. Seeing the way European students from different countries treat each other, and the ease with which one can travel through such a diverse continent, is a testament to the possibility of peaceful and beneficial coexistence. I wholeheartedly recommend studying abroad for as long, and as alone, as possible. Jump headfirst into the country and its culture, because America will always be there when you come back.

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