During my study abroad experience in Mexico I made an effort to travel to various cities outside of my homestay in order to get a feel for life in a variety of locales. One of these trips was a weekend in which my father and I (he had flown down to visit me and see the sights) traveled to the small city of Jalpan in the Sierra Gorda outside of Querétaro. We had to check out of our hotel incredibly early in the morning and made the somewhat foolish decision of paying as we checked out rather than when we made the reservation. As our luck would have it the machine in which the hotel was using to keep track of reservations and payments decided to stop working and various problems arose regarding our payments. Seeing as my dad doesn’t really speak any Spanish the task of sorting out the reservation fell on me as I struggled to force myself out of my sleep-deprived stupor. I spent about an hour speaking with the hotel employee working everything out, stretching my limited Spanish skills to their limits before we were able to leave and catch our next bus.
Although I had already been in Mexico for a few weeks at that point, looking back I realize that dealing with the reservation problem was probably my first big challenge which I faced while studying abroad. Especially when considering my level of Spanish upon arriving in Mexico (I had studied the language for a little under a year), being thrust into a position in which I had to problem solve in a foreign language whilst sleep-deprived was rather intimidating. I am fairly confident that had I been thrust into that position before studying abroad I would not have been able to have much, if any success solving our payment dilemma. I was able to overcome this linguistic hurdle primarily due to the confidence speaking Spanish which I had obtained from my then limited time abroad. Looking back I am able to appreciate truly how fast one’s language skills and comfort speaking improve whilst studying abroad. Moreover, speaking with the hotel employee was one of the first times in which I had practically spoken Spanish for an extended period of time. In many ways it was like a door had been opened for me. Suddenly the idea of speaking to strangers in Spanish didn’t scare me; I had proven to myself that it was possible for me to speak and not make a fool out of myself. After that weekend I found myself much more willing to speak Spanish with strangers, a change which greatly enhanced both my language skills and my experience abroad.
Ryan Sherrard, Spanish Language and Culture in Queretaro
I believe the most significant learning experience I had abroad was connecting to the people around me. I had the wonderful opportunity to uproot myself from one culture and start over in another. This was the main struggle I experienced in my new surroundings abroad in Queretaro, Mexico. The best way I learned to re-accommodate myself in my new surroundings was to open up and reach out to the people around me. This was something entirely new for me because I never had to stand on my own and represent so many things in another culture.
I ended up relying on my host family in order to learn a lot about my surroundings. I asked them about the way of life in Queretaro and many other questions concerning their daily routines and tasks that were most important to them. I had a unique opportunity that most of my fellow study abroad group members did not: I spoke Spanish fluently because my parents were from Mexico. In this way, I was able to connect with my host family and host country better. I came to Mexico with preconceived notions on what it meant to be Mexican. And with my own knowledge and form of Spanish (Spanglish), I decided to test out what I knew against what they knew. My host brothers taught me about their school. My host mom corrected my Spanglish. And my host grandma sat with me every morning and talked to me about Mexico’s history, her past, the news and more.
At the same time, it was great to spend time with the group of Oregonians who were also going through similar experiences. It really helped to build better relationships among us. As I began building these relationships with my core group of people that I saw every day (my host family and my fellow study abroad friends), I also began to reach out to strangers. I would talk to neighbors; get to know them and what they believed. I would befriend store owners, cab drivers, bus drivers, clowns, and passer-bys. Since there was so much to learn about the city, the culture and the history, it seemed fairly easy to get into a conversation with strangers that simply started with: “Which bus can I take to go to…?” In this way I made new friends and spent time getting to know more about the city.
During the time I stayed in Queretaro, I was even given the rare and wonderful opportunity to visit family members I hadn’t seen since I was three years old. I saved a bit of money and ventured off to the nearby state of Morelia to visit them. It was such an incredible feeling to visit for three days the hometown of my parents and have their brothers and sisters claim me as if I were their own daughter. Once again, I learned so much by just walking around with family and getting to know all of my cousins and family friends. That was definitely the most meaningful experience for me throughout the trip because at that moment, I knew that I was part of a bigger culture and a bigger picture than who I believed I was in the United States. And the fact that I was able to stand up on my own, take a chance and venture off into the unknown helped me realize that I am strong and not ever really completely ‘on my own’. I’ve learned that if you have an earnest interest in learning and needing help, there will definitely be people there that will lend a hand and help you simply with the stories that they tell or with a plateful of food to give to you. All you have to do is reach out into the unknown and allow yourself to do things you never thought you’d do. As writer Neale Donald Walsch says, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
– Brandy Aguilar, Spanish Language and Mexican Culture in Queretaro