After arriving in Spain, I felt the same kind of excitement that I usually feel after arriving in a new place, so much so that it almost felt like the beginning of a long vacation. Because I had never been to Spain before, I was ready to fit in as many unique experiences as possible, and everything around me—the buildings, the food, the people—seemed new and different. I had been planning to study abroad here for longer than I had planned any trip before, so every sight and activity during the first few weeks felt like payoff for all the time I spent waiting to begin this semester.
Since I first got to Oviedo, I’ve gradually started to think differently about being here. The initial excitement didn’t wear off, and I’m still just as thrilled to be studying abroad in Spain as I was to fly here in the first place, but I realized that having a culturally immersive experience would be difficult (or impossible) if I held on to the vacation mentality. In an effort to make sure I’m not missing out on the “real life” aspects of living and studying in a different city, I’ve made a few conscious decisions and some other, less conscious changes to my attitude and habits while in Spain:
1) Studying abroad means studying (among other things).
Okay, so this one wasn’t exactly a huge revelation on my part, but I think it’s an important thing to consider before and during any academic program abroad. Having a routine has helped more than anything to make me feel like I’m living in Oviedo and not just taking an extended break from my life in the U.S. Classes may not be the most glamorous part of studying in another country, but taking them seriously is a simple way to establish that sense of normalcy.
2) Sightseeing isn’t the same as immersion.
After the fast-paced first week in Madrid, I was accustomed to long days full of excursions and tours. Settling into Oviedo required slowing down and remembering the things I wanted to do in addition to visiting museums and historical sites. I enjoy sightseeing, but I don’t think it would be a great way to spend more than four months, especially if I hope to feel like more of a student than a tourist. With that in mind, I’ve reminded myself to spend at least as much time participating in conversations and activities here as I spend observing them.
3) Discovering similarities is just as valuable as recognizing differences.
So far in Oviedo I’ve met local students, explored the oldest part of the city, eaten typical Asturian cuisine, and watched Spanish television with my host family. I’ve also shopped at H&M, eaten pizza, and gone to see an English movie. As much as I love to learn about the traditions that are different from my own, pretending that Spain has nothing in common with the U.S. would mean ignoring a big part of the local culture. To make sure unrealistic expectations don’t keep me from appreciating and understanding the city around me, I’ve tried not to measure my experiences in terms of their “newness” or “differentness,” but instead to enjoy opportunities as they come.
A semester abroad offers experiences that shorter trips might not, but it also requires a different kind of approach. These reminders have so far helped me take in both the most exciting and the most unexpected aspects of studying in Oviedo.