School of Education and Social Policy
Major: Human Development and Psychological Services, Minors: Spanish, African American Studies
Major: Social Policy
I had a homestay while studying abroad. My roommate and I shared a bedroom in a rather spacious apartment that was home to our host mother, host father, and their two adult children. Although our host mother spoke English (which isn’t common among host parents in our program), she did not use it often because she really wanted us to improve our Spanish. Living with a Spanish family helped a lot in regards to navigating the city and finding places to eat and explore. In regards to language acquisition, my listening comprehension improved significantly as I listened to conversations during meals and occasionally watched television with family members. The only downside to my placement was location; it was about a 25-minute walk away from the university. Since I’m not very big on walking, I spent a nice portion of my budget on bus fare.
My courses abroad fit better into my academic plan than I had anticipated. Before I left campus, I met with my Academic advisors to get an idea of what kind of classes I would need to take in Spain. I did not intend to earn any credit towards my major abroad, so I intentionally took classes that could work towards distribution requirements – history and literature courses to be specific. Furthermore, because I am also minoring in Spanish I was able to complete my Spanish minor using the non-University level courses that I took in Seville. In the end, every course I took in Spain was able to count towards something.
I took four courses: three cursos concertados (classes for American students taught by Spanish professors) and one university level course (a class for Spanish students taught by a Spanish professor). In my classes for American students, the method of instruction and course structure was similar to Northwestern. Class participation was really important and homework was assigned, although in much smaller quantities than I was accustomed to. There were also midterms and final exams. I believe the biggest difference is that most of my professors expected their students from abroad to not study as hard. This was especially true of my University level professor who gave special (less difficult) assignments to his foreign students. Thankfully, I did have one professor who outright told his students that if they did not study they would not do well – and that ended up being my favorite class.
While in Seville, I had an internship at the library of an elementary school in my neighborhood. During my internship, I catalogued books that had been donated to the library so that they could go into circulation. However because of scheduling difficulties I was able to work only one hour a week, and unfortunately during the hour I worked the librarian was teaching. Consequently, I did not have the opportunity to interact with students – although I did check out their books on occasion - or to learn more about the workings of the school library. Nonetheless, I still consider it to have been worthwhile because I gained experience with library software and learned about Spanish children’s books.
In addition to working in the library, I also taught English to an 11-year old girl. I had no previous teaching experience, but thankfully her parents simply wanted me to have conversations with her. It was a great experience having conversations with the girl because I received even more advice on where to go in the city – particularly where to shop – but also because it was a set time that I could speak English and not feel guilty about it. And yet, it was also one of the most uncomfortable experiences that I had in Spain. There were often these awkward moments where she would attempt to say something in English and I would not understand her, and then I would try to say something in Spanish and she would be confused. I started carrying paper with me so that we could write down what we were trying to say; usually, we had both really messed up our pronunciation.
I spent a lot of time exploring the city and nearby locations. I did not travel as much as other students on the program (I was on a rather tight budget), but I did manage to travel to Portugal and Cadiz with friends. It was also helpful that the program included several trips outside of Seville, including Granada. I also got cards with the public and university libraries. I borrowed DVDs and a couple books, which kept me pretty entertained when friends were away traveling.
I met and interacted with locals primarily through my involvement in a campus Christian ministry, Grupos Bíblicos Universitarios (GBU) de Sevilla. We met once a week for Bible study around lunch time and had occasional gatherings on the weekends. One of my best memories abroad is when other American students and I shared a Thanksgiving dinner with local students. I also fondly remember being invited to a small group Bible study in the apartment of a Spanish GBU student on my birthday and sharing the largest tortilla de patata that I had ever seen. Little did I know that my birthday celebration wasn’t over yet; the next day they surprised me with cake at Bible study.
The biggest aspect of my identity that affected my time abroad was my race. Being Black affected my experience abroad not so much because people brought it up (in fact, few people did) but because I myself noticed it. I felt my difference. Although there are not that many Black people at Northwestern either, at least on campus I can walk across the street and see a few people that look like me. In Seville, there were times that I would walk blocks on end without seeing a single dark-skinned face. Psychologically, that really bothered me. I was surrounded by people and felt absolutely and totally alone.
My friends would talk about how they were mistaken for Spaniards or catcalled by men, and it always made me feel uncomfortable because no one ever mistook me for a Spaniard, and people rarely talked to me as I walked by (and on the few occasions someone did say something, they always seemed to throw in something about my dark skin). Being black made me hypersensitive to the fact that I was in a foreign place, and I felt like no one around me understood.
It also did not help that I was the only Black student in my program. I often tried to find solidarity with White students, and it usually worked but there were a few instances that I still felt different. And yet, with Spaniards I was able to use my difference as teaching moments. During one conversation with Spanish students about worship, I was able to talk about why Gospel music is so important to African American culture. With my host mother, I was able to explain why many African American girls do not know how to swim and why we do not wash our hair every day, and many other things that she probably would have never learned about my culture. It was really satisfying to share my culture in that way.
I had read a few articles online about being African American while abroad, but to be honest I do not remember a single thing I learned from those articles. I was prepared to be mistaken for a Spanish immigrant from Africa, but I was not prepared simply for the experience of walking around and not seeing anyone who looked like me.
Overall, I’d say that being Black certainly did not worsen my study abroad experience in any way. I did not encounter any explicit racism nor was I ever told that I was inferior in any way. I think the biggest thing about being Black while abroad was simply the discomfort of being different. That discomfort eased only with time and the discovery of other African American students. Once I began to spend more time with other African American girls, I felt much more comfortable. For me, there was comfort in numbers.
I went abroad with the expectation that I would improve my Spanish speaking skills. I had imagined that since I would be in Spain, I would have no choice but to speak in Spanish. That was not the case. It was actually possible to be in Spain and not speak in Spanish. Unfortunately, I did not realize until my first month in Spain that in order to improve my speaking skills I would have to speak in Spanish. And to be honest, it was not until then that I realized that the cost of fluency – actually practicing – was a bit too high. I ended up changing my language acquisition expectations rather quickly.
Know before you arrive that improving your language proficiency is going to take a lot of intentional effort. The biggest barrier I encountered to speaking the language was myself – I simply did not want to do it. I recommend that students take an internal inventory of their language acquisition desires, and really ask themselves how bad do they want it. It sounds really simple, but if you struggle to practice speaking the language around people at home, you will probably struggle to practice even more when you are away from home and English feels like the only piece of home you have left.
Everyone adjusts to a new culture in his/her own way and on his/her own time; so do not be ashamed to adjust slower than those around you. My advice would be that if you are having difficulty adjusting, find like-minded people to talk to. It is easier said than done, but there is something to be said for finding someone who understands what you are going through. Even though I went abroad with my roommate of two years, I realized in Seville that we were not viewing our situations with the same lens. Whereas she saw it as a great opportunity to be taken advantage of, I initially saw studying abroad as an ordeal to be survived. Studying abroad was my first time really being away from my family, and I truly felt the loss of that support network. I ended up spending countless hours in communication with people from home, and my roommate struggled to understand why talking to my family everyday was so important to me. Ultimately, I did not feel comfortable where I was until I found like-minded individuals, who also missed home terribly, and talked to them about my feelings and apprehensions. It helps to adjust to new surroundings when you’re doing it in community with people who are viewing the situation with a similar lens.
I wish I had known that the transition does not just happen. It’s not as simple as being in a different place. You have to want to transition to your new life. I had a really horrible and time-consuming adjustment period. While others were excitedly trying new foods and broadening their horizons, I scanned menus for something that I knew and said ‘no’ to a lot simply because I had never done said things before. It was not until I began to say yes - to new experiences, to getting lost, and often to spending a bit outside of my budget - that I began to really feel at home in Seville and finally have fun.
As a result of studying abroad I’ve learned that even if you’re from the same country - or even the same school – you can still be very different. The way you view the world, the way you view yourself in regards to the rest of world, the way you’d enjoy spending a sunny day is simply one way in an infinite pool of equally valuable and possible ways. Although the host culture will certainly try to label all of you as ‘American’, and you do in fact have several things in common, the definition of and experiences of being American are varied. And that is totally okay.
I returned to campus much more appreciative of the Black community that we have here. However, I do still struggle with the feelings of being different simply because I look different. Although I felt those feelings before I went abroad, they are much more pronounced now. In order to overcome those feelings I’ve been trying to build more cross-cultural relationships that will show me that I have more similarities than differences with most people.
There were two options for living on my program. One of them was a homestay, and the other was living in the International Dorm on campus. I lived in the Dorm, and that was a great fit for me. The food was the hardest part of living in India, and though they served primarily Indian food in the dorm, I could choose portion size, and I wouldn’t have had that flexibility in a homestay. The dorm was also great because students from all over the world lived there, so I was able to make German, Japanese, Dutch, and Norwegian friends as well. There was air conditioning in the dorm as well as ceiling fans, but because of daily mandated power outages, it could still be pretty warm. Because India can be a lot to take in at once, it was nice to have a dorm that I could go back to. In terms of language acquisition, I spoke Hindi so often on the street, I didn’t feel that I missed out by not speaking in my dorm. The commute was easier to campus from the dorm, but the homestay students didn’t seem to have a problem getting to campus for class each day (it took them about 30 minutes).
I took classes that were both interesting and relevant to my time in India and my time at NU. All of my course credit transferred back to NU – some of it was elective credit, but some counted towards my major. A language was required, so I took Hindi because it’s one of the most commonly spoken languages in India. I worked really hard to learn in the classroom and it paid off – I spoke Hindi all the time on the street and would definitely recommend taking it when you go. I also took two political science courses, Dalit Politics and Politics in India Post Independence. They really helped me to understand Indian history and the political system, and I was really comfortable reading the newspaper and engaging with Indians about current events. Politics in India Post-Independence was the best class I took – I learned SO much and my professor was incredible. I still keep in touch with her, and she has even written me letters of recommendation for competitions in the US since then. Lastly, I took Yoga: Theory and Practice. The first part of the class was actually doing yoga and the second part was learning the theory and history of yoga. It was fascinating, and I still use what I learned nearly every day. Although my classes were great, a great deal of flexibility is required to be a student in India – professors don’t always run on a set schedule, and classes were often moved or canceled with no warning. Additionally, the library at the school was nowhere near the likes of that at NU. Research and reading was a lot more difficult, but Indian students were really helpful in getting us the information that we should have. Lastly, the structure of grading is totally different. You have three “internals” (midterms). The top two scores count as 40% of your grade, and the last 60% is from the final exam. That means you don’t have any cushioning on your grade – that being said, I did well in all of my classes.
I traveled nearly every weekend all over India. It’s hard to travel outside of India because of time (you have to be in class again on Monday), and also many of the countries surrounding India (Pakistan, China) are not countries that you can just waltz in to. However, India is GIANT, and I was never sorry that I only traveled in-country. I went parasailing in Goa, saw the Taj Mahal at sunrise, went to Delhi to see the capital, and spent a week in Mumbai with my NU roommate’s family for Diwali, the festival of lights. I was all over India, and I enjoyed traveling immensely. I flew more often than took the train. Although trains in India are far more common than in the US, they can take up a lot of time, have varying levels of comfort, and train stations were not great places to be (foreigners are often targeted for malicious behavior in train stations). I also discovered a love of Bollywood movies and went to see them in theaters once a week or so (and brought back over 30 to watch at home).
I spent time at the local markets and that (plus school) is how I most interacted with locals in Hyderabad. I wish I’d known ahead of time that being non-Indian in appearance in Hyderabad would make me the subject of a lot of interest on the street. Even though it’s the 4th largest city in India, it’s not really a tourist destination. So just be ready to handle a little bit of extra attention. However, locals are very helpful if you ever need assistance. Also, most transactions are done through bargaining so you have to learn how to be assertive really quickly.
The most difficult part of going to Hyderabad was standing out so much on the street. White people (and anyone who doesn’t look Indian) stick out. People often tried to take my picture, but I always refused because it made me feel like an outsider. I wore Indian clothes when I went out, spoke Hindi, and could speak intelligently about the culture and politics of the region. These things helped a lot in terms of fitting into Indian society. It’s really important for anyone going to Hyderabad to be able to adjust to a slightly more conservative lifestyle – if you expect to wear shorts and tank tops, you will distinguish yourself in a pretty negative way because dress is seen differently in Hyderabad. I definitely recommend learning a little bit about India and Indian culture before you go – SASA, the South Asian student group on campus, is a GREAT place to start.
Balance risk carefully. It can be easy to get carried away in a mentality of thinking that either nothing bad will happen to you, or something bad will always happen. Vigilance is really important, but so is friendliness. Essentially, do things that are fun and culturally relevant, participate in celebrations and local events, but also be aware that you are not as knowledgeable as people who live there, and there are certain things that you should not do as a foreigner. Eating street food right off the bat, for example, will make you very sick. So let yourself work into it, or perhaps don’t eat it at all. It’s the little choices to keep yourself healthy and safe that will make your experience so wonderful (and also make your parents happy).
I was so lucky and had an Indian roommate freshman and sophomore year who was so open and excited to tell me about India. She is actually the reason I decided to go, and she had told me a lot about India and Indian culture before I left. While this definitely wasn’t necessary, I feel my experience was even better because I knew a lot going to India in terms of dress, customs, family structure, and expectations. Plus I got to stay with her family for the biggest holiday of the year in Bombay. Basically, the most important part of going to India is to be able to be flexible. You won’t wear the same clothes, talk to men and women the same way, speak the same language, use the same money, be able to cross the street at first, or even have set prices (a lot of bargaining is required). Everything moves at a little bit slower of a pace, and patience and flexibility are the most important attributes a person can have. Learning to bargain was difficult at first, but practicing with autorickshaw drivers was great, and by the end, I was getting Indian prices for many of the things I bought. Additionally, using an Indian language gets you a lot farther than using English. Pay attention in your language class and really practice on the street.
The students of SASA, the South Asian student group on campus, are so open and excited to talk about India, and this not only helped me when I arrived, but when I got back and was readjusting to American life. It was so great to be able to talk to people who could really relate to what I had experienced while I was there. India is a lot more laid back about “getting things done,” so the fast-paced NU lifestyle was sort of a jolt when I returned, as was the individualistic attitude that Indians reject in favor of community. Having said all this, I LOVED INDIA. Was it an adjustment in some ways? Sure. But I wouldn’t have changed any of my experience, and the challenges really did help me to grow a lot as a person.