Name: Alina Miller
Major: Molecular Toxicology
Location: Spain – Middlebury College
Program: Berkeley Summer Abroad
What impact did studying abroad have on you?
Studying in a country I have family ties to changed my perspective of identity. I used to see myself as somewhat Spanish: after all, I could trace my ancestors to the Canary Islands and Asturias and ate many a paella growing up. When I first arrived at the program, some of my American classmates automatically assumed I was Spanish at first glance. Even then, I held a one-dimensional idea of the Spanish culture garnered from my Cuban-Spanish grandmother's stories as child. Despite my education, I had never thought to re-examine my relationship to this culture. After actually experiencing a slice of life in only a part of Spain, it hit me that it was silly that I could claim some sort of ownership of a modern, ever-changing culture. I will always have the historical roots here, but I came to realize that it doesn't come close to an actual relationship with Spain: something I had to form myself.
What was the most memorable/meaningful aspect of your time abroad?
I liked getting to know the real Spain: it may not seem like much, but even talking to random students, walking around in department stores made Spain as real to me as seeing grand historical sites like the royal palaces and ancient fortresses. It was realizing that it wasn't something that belonged preserved in a history book, but also had living, breathing people; not just the kind to make history, but that keep the culture and country alive and evolving.
Describe a typical day for you abroad.
Usually, we eat breakfast at dorm, then walk twenty minutes through small streets in Madrid for class 9:30-1:30, sometimes staying a little later for office hours. After lunch with fellow Berkeley students (and often students from all over the world too!), is siesta time, a Spanish tradition everyone became fond of. This would be shortly followed by excursions exploring Madrid, like hunting down new pastelerías, delving into museums, walking around Parque Retiro, or just wandering in the city. After a day's venture, it was back to the dorm for dinner, and homework.
Describe your academic experience abroad.
It certainly was fast-paced! The class went straight into brass tacks, going in depth with a lot of grammar. It took a few hours of work a day to keep up with, but it was worth it to be able to spot grammar constructions in people's speech you wouldn't have been able to catch otherwise. The cultural/speaking part of the class was definitely a challenge, but lively and thought-provoking.
What was the most interesting cultural experience you had abroad?
There is no one experience I could point to. There's taking in the awe-inspiring sites like the Alhambra and Aqueduct of Segovia, then there's watching the entire of city of Madrid go insane after winning the Euro Cup, and there's small things, like being able to buy crustless loaves of bread or not being able to pick your own fruit. It's seeing the giant, obvious aspects of a culture, and seeing the small differences, too.
What financial advice would you give to future study abroad students?
If you plan to do excursions on the weekends, definitely book transport and hostels as soon as possible! As you get closer to the time of your trip, prices start jumping by the minute! The sooner, the better.
What was the biggest challenge/concern of your study abroad experience? How did you respond?
One of the hardest things to do is to get up the courage to have a conversation with a Spanish native. I felt so incapable with my grasp of Spanish when talking to a native speaker. But I found an opening when I saw someone studying linear algebra, and struck up a conversation from that. As it happened, he was studying English as well, which was on par with my Spanish! Suddenly, Spaniards seemed much more approachable, and now I just wish I had made the plunge sooner.
What would you recommend to students considering studying abroad, especially to your country and program?
Brush up on the language beforehand! My time abroad would have been inestimably better if I had just practiced beforehand and been prepared to start engaging Spaniards from the start. It also would have been a good idea to try to get a little time-acclimated before the adventure began: it would have saved a lot of headache-- and coffee!
Anything else you would like to share about your international experience?
Definitely the time of my life!