Integration 101: Lessons I Learned

maria

Before I left Georgetown for Christmas break and before heading to Salamanca, everyone who I talked to who had been in there in past years told me it was really hard to make friends and that I would wind up hanging out with my fellow GU classmates. Even then, I knew that they were wrong. I was going to Spain to meet new people and practice my Spanish, whether with other non-American exchange students or Spaniards. Salamanca is a university city; there are 6000 Erasmus students (Erasmus is the European version of study abroad). Therefore, it was actually relatively easy to meet other foreign students; more difficult was balancing them with the GU crew.

When you first arrive it is nice to already have a social circle in place; the GU crew serves as a good support network when you are all trying to figure your way around, but you also end up speaking a lot of English and truthfully, you can see these people anytime back in the States. In order to avoid this problem, I chose to deliberately distance myself from the other Georgetown students and other Americans, even at the cost of sometimes seeming rude. However, as I look back over the semester, it was truly worth the price. In the days before I left Salamanca I went to so many cenas de despedida o cafes de despedida that now, only days after, they all blend together. One day I had four citas in a row, all with people from outside of the program. Here are some of the things I did to meet people outside of my program.

            The first friend I made was a Portuguese girl who lives in Switzerland. We met in a nine am Friday morning class about Medieval Spanish poetry that neither of us wound up enrolling in. We connected through email and Facebook, met up to go out with some other girls, and the rest is history. (Cliché, I know, but true). As the semester went on, our group grew, new people joining us every week. By the end of the semester on Friday nights we were dining at the restaurant where one of our friends worked and then heading to our favorite bar, La Posada, at which we were “conocidos”. We had picnics by the river with the group of Puerto Ricans we met, went to the movies together for “girls night out”, and ate ice cream in the Plaza once it got hot. We were from all over the world: United States, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Georgia, and we got along great.

Lesson: BRANCH OUT, DON’T HANG OUT WITH AMERICANS!

I also grew really close to our “student mentor” in Salamanca. She was the Spanish representative of my group of friends and at the end of the semester she and I spent every study day together in the Sala de Lecturas in the Facultad de Filologia. Before I left Spain to go to Portugal before heading back to the States, we went together to Córdoba for two days and the day before we left I stayed with her at her home, where I also met her family. We have become great friends and are definitely going to stay in touch.

            So, how did I do it? I took three classes on my own, without the GU crew. I took two classes with other GU students because they interested me and one counted for major credit, but even so I tried to branch out. It was a lot harder; with other GU students there, I stuck more with them. I would up discovering that some of my Erasmus friends were actually in the class, but I hadn’t noticed them because I sat with another GU student.

Lesson: STEP OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE!

On the other hand, in two of my other classes, I made some really good friends, albeit a little on the late end (now I wish I had more time with them). In my history class we went on a trip to Lisbon as part of our grade (sweet eh?) and I wound up spending all of my time on the trip with the three Spaniards and the two Germans I talked to in class. We continued to get together when we got back to Salamanca and one of the guys from Galicia even offered to bring me home with him to see Santiago, the capital city of Galicia. The kids in my Portuguese class were a little intimidating because the Portuguese carrera is really small and they all knew each other really well (this year, their graduating “class” consisted of three people). However, one of them really tried to reach out to me and he invited me to tomar café and to the end of the semester dinner with both students and professors. On both occasions I had a great time. After the dinner we went out and even though I had to get up early the next day to leave Salamanca for good I didn’t go home until 3:30 am. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming and they begged me to not to leave. I truly wish I hadn’t been so timid about asking to hang out with them in the first place, because I would have gotten to know them better and spend more time with them.

 Lesson: EVEN IF YOU’RE AFRAID, TAKE THE LEAP!

Also, one of my friends who was in Salamanca the year before me set me up with her intercambio. We met once a week and spoke for half an hour in English and half an hour in Spanish. We became friends and she even invited me out to dinner with her boyfriend and two of her friends. We had a wonderful time and went home with stomachaches due to the “all you can eat” pizza for 6 euros (Brazilian place, I think called Samba, by the train station). We went running and walking together some days instead of sitting in a cafe and at the end of the semester she also invited me to her house in Avila but I didn’t have enough time to go.

            My host mother and I also became really close. We watched a couple TV series together at night after dinner, we went to Palm Sunday mass together, she brought me to some of the Semana Santa processions, and she invited me to tomar vino with her and her friends. I respected her and she respected me and we got along great. She gave me two wall hangings of the facade of the university and the skyline of Salamanca as a goodbye gift and I got her a “Georgetown Mom” T-shirt. When I return to Spain I am definitely going to stop by her house to see her.

Lesson: TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DIFFERENT OPPORTUNITIES TO MAKE FRIENDS!

General Advice: put yourself out there, spread yourself a little thin at the beginning, (you’ll have time to sleep later), and take advantage of all the opportunities offered to you. If someone asks you to have coffee with them, go have coffee, whatever you had planned for after class can wait, you have lots of extra time while studying abroad. It is ingrained in us as GU students to plan everything to the last minute, we have to do so in order to survive at GU, but in Europe, people barely plan, and Spaniards even less. Try something new, continue something old, and enjoy your time, it goes by way too fast.

 Maria Rocha, Georgetown College, Class of 2011