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Halah Nelson: Semester Abroad in Leon, Spain

It’s May, in the middle of the pandemic. I am in my childhood room drinking watered down iced coffee with a stack of GRE flashcards sitting next to me. Having been forced to return early from my semester abroad trip to Leon, Spain, I’m disappointed. But to be frank, I met every goal I had set out for myself. I wanted to learn more Spanish and actually feel confident speaking it. Check. I wanted to feel immersed in Spanish culture. Check. Lastly, I wanted to meet and interview students I met about their personal experience with language acquisition for my thesis. Check. It’s been a real bummer, but I’ve truly learned that I really don’t hold the reins of my life. I can plan and work and I can even meet my goals against all odds, but that does not mean that I have control. My proposal was incredibly realistic, and that’s probably the only way that I was able to meet these goals. I am happy with what I planned to do, and I’m happy with how I accomplished it.

If you’re thinking about studying abroad, it might be helpful to hear how one person made that happen. The spring 2020 semester wasn’t anything like I expected it to be. I had been planning to study abroad in a Spanish speaking country since I was a junior in high school. My sister had taken a trip abroad over the summer and told me that, economically speaking, I could probably get a better experience abroad if I did an entire semester – granted, of course, that I receive the same full ride scholarship from UCA that she had. That’s when the dream began. I had visited Mexico four times on medical mission trips and had decided that I was tired of my “mierda” Spanish and that I really wanted to be able to speak the language. College was the perfect time to learn; my high school classes had been a joke and being bilingual would make me more hirable. It only made sense to minor in Spanish. I knew that I would be unable to apply for a TAG grant until I had completed my sophomore year, and I wanted to have my senior year at UCA so that I could apply to grad school without the hassle of being across the globe. Junior year was it. I decided to go during the spring semester because it meant doing two trimesters in Spain for the price of one– no brainer. At the end of my sophomore year I went to talk to one of my Spanish professors about the trip, and for the first time, I found out how selective it was. UCA generally only sent 2-4 students. He told me that majors had priority and that although I could probably go to another country, I might want to become a Spanish major in order to guarantee myself a spot. I am a HUGE suckup, so I immediately emailed my advisor and had her look at my classes, and once she told me it was possible, I filled out all the information to add the major. This meant that to graduate on time with a double major in psychology and Spanish, a minor in honors, and all of the prerequisites for OT school, I would have to do an 18 hour semester and some summer courses. This didn’t phase me a bit. I love lectures and I love school and my favorite thing is to come home to my roommates and tell them all about what I learned that day. I stayed busy but determined.

Flash forward to the end of the fall semester my junior year. I kept up with paperwork for the trip, completed all my OT prerequisites and had done my best to ensure that once I returned home, if any of my credits didn’t transfer, I wouldn’t have to take any more than 18 hours a semester to graduate. As the trip inched closer, I started getting scared and realized I would actually be away from my friends and living in a country where I had barely any confidence in the language. The shower became my place to cry when I got too overwhelmed, but that didn’t compare to the fear I faced after traveling to Houston and being denied my student visa. Eventually, I was able to send in my missing documents and received it. I was going!

Sure, I wish a pandemic hadn’t stomping on my long awaited trip, but what can you do? I’m very proud of myself for all of the work I put in to get here and all of the work that I did on the trip as well. I pushed myself and found a version of myself that was more brave than any of the past versions of myself that I had encountered. I made friends with people across the globe and lived with people who I could barely understand. I almost got a tattoo and I said yes to every new experience I could. And sure, there have been tears, there have been sleepless nights, there have been relationships that I had to tape up with whatever I could find left in myself. However, I wouldn’t trade my situation for anything. Who else gets to tell a story this exciting for the rest of their life?