I still remember it like it was yesterday: the sweet sounds of Kelly Clarkson singing “Breakaway” on my iPod as I cried into my in-flight meal somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. Studying abroad in Spain had sounded like a good idea, in theory. But now, with just a few hours left until my classmates and I touched down in Madrid in the middle of August, I felt a sense of dread and panic unlike anything I’d ever felt before.
Between sobs, the kind, older Spanish gentleman next to me tried to console me in Spanish, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. This only made me cry even harder. What was I thinking? I’d never lived this far from my family and friends. Sure, I lived on campus, but my college was only a 45-minute drive from my parents’ house.
And now I had the bright idea to travel halfway across the world to live in a country where I didn’t even speak the language.
But what I thought was the biggest mistake of my life (at the time), actually turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.
You see, for a Type-A recovering perfectionist like me, change does not come easily. So finding myself in a foreign country took some adjustment.
For starters, my group arrived about a month before classes started at the university for Spanish and other international students. It was an “immersion period,” if you will. And thanks to an unlucky (or lucky, depending on how you look at it) room assignment, I had an entire house to myself on campus. So not only am I in a new country — now I’m living by myself for the first time ever. HELP!
I remember calling my parents from a nearby payphone once we landed (keep in mind, this was 2006 and the iPhone wasn’t a thing yet), telling them I was awesome, the school was awesome, everything was awesome.
And as soon as I hung up the phone, I started crying again. I was 18. I was scared.
These “WTF have I done?” moments would pop up throughout my semester abroad. I quickly made friends with the girls who were assigned to the dorm next to me, and thankfully they took me under their wing so I didn’t have to be alone all the time. After an intimidating first trip to the local grocery store, I learned to navigate the neighborhood like a pro.
I even became a regular at a cafe near the university, and stopped in for cafe con leche and tortilla every Tuesday and Thursday in between classes.
After the initial culture shock wore off, I started to adapt to Spanish life, which meant taking a siesta in the afternoon (oh, how I miss those!) and eating dinner at 10 p.m. Living in Spain also taught me how to relax and go with the flow. In my group of friends, I’m typically the one who shows up five minutes early because, as my dad taught me and my sister, “To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is unacceptable.” When our group director was about 20 minutes late meeting us at the airport, I knew this trip would be a different pace than I was used to.
While studying abroad, I did things I never thought I’d do: like go to the movies by myself; visit Portugal, France, and Italy; and stay out until 7 o’clock in the morning, literally dancing the night away.
And I learned how to be on my own, try new things, and give in to adventures. Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t occasionally get homesick or break down in my dorm room.
Living in a new country taught me that I’m a lot smarter, stronger, and savvier than I give myself credit for.
And as I crossed over the Atlantic again on the way home that December, I couldn’t help but replay Kelly Clarkson. This time, though, I listened without crying into my in-flight meal. Instead, I had a smile and a sense of accomplishment that I’d done it.
I took a risk, took a chance, made a change, and broke away. And nearly 11 years later, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.