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It is hard to put into words the many changes I have gone through since the start of my semester in Madrid. I do feel that leaving the Amherst “bubble” has been good for my own personal growth. I was constantly challenged to adapt and step outside of my comfort zone. After two years at Amherst, I am guilty of falling into a predictable routine. The semester in Madrid gave me a chance to shake things up and live more adventurously. Returning home, I now feel more confident in my abilities to live independently, and I have a newfound sense of confidence. My perspective has undoubtedly changed, and I hope that I can carry these lessons back with me to campus in the fall. As much as I love Amherst, I needed time outside the Amherst “bubble” to grow and to better appreciate how much Amherst has done for me.

Stuart and seven others in water on paddle boards, mountains in the background.
Above is a picture of my first time paddle boarding. It was taken in the Mar Menor during the pre-semester seminar. This was one of many first time experiences that I had over the course of the semester.

Growing up in a small town and choosing to spend the next four years of my life at a small college made me question whether or not I was cut out to thrive in a big city. Considering that many post-graduation opportunities are located in large cities across the country, I was dreading life after Amherst. When I first landed in Madrid, I felt a pang of regret. I felt that I was in way over my head, seeing as though I had never lived in a large city before and knew no one in my program. I am glad that I pushed through those initial feelings of uncertainty. I learned how to thrive in an unfamiliar city while dealing with the stresses of learning a new language and adapting to a new culture. Wherever I go after Amherst, I know that I am capable of adapting and thriving.

One challenge often overlooked by students going abroad is losing the privilege of being a native speaker: something I took for granted back at home. Struggling to communicate in a new language has made me reflect on the roles I play within Amherst communities. I know that I can do better to accommodate those around me who are not fluent in English. In much of Europe, it is normal and expected for people to speak several different languages. I noticed that Spaniards seem to have more patience for non-native speakers than English-speaking Americans do. Since my time in Madrid was brief, I do not feel as though I managed to fully integrate myself into local life. Besides the language barrier, I knew that Spain was only a temporary home. As valuable as my time in Madrid has been, it is clear that I have just scratched the surface of life in Spain.

Stuart sitting on grass with five other students and a family sitting on the grass in the background
Above is a picture of some friends from my study abroad program, all of whom lived in the same building as me during the semester. Like at Amherst, some of my closest friendships formed with the people who lived next to me.

I wish that I had made more than just a handful of native Spanish friends. By the end of the semester, I found it much easier to overcome the awkwardness of language barriers, and I focused on communicating to the best of my ability. One piece of advice I have for students thinking of studying abroad: put yourself out there early! The friends I made were patient and accommodating when it came to my limited Spanish competency, and much of my learning came from their friendly pointers.

Struggling to find my sense of community outside of the American-based program speaks to a common struggle faced by students who go abroad.  It feels easier to stick to what we know, and other American students tend to be much easier to connect with. Whenever I felt lonely during my semester in Madrid, I tried to remember that most students who go abroad feel the same way. I used this feeling to push myself to connect with others, even when I felt intimidated by certain groups of people who I might not normally approach.

Stuart with six students from program in culinary class
Above is a picture from one of the many cultural immersion activities offered during the semester. We learned how to cook traditional Spanish dishes while forming new friendships. Many of the people who I was nervous to approach at the start of the semester turned out to be my good friends by the end.

Adjusting to life back in the states has not come without its own challenges, but it has reminded me of the importance of community. It was hard to leave a large network of new friends and return home to my small town. I am making an effort to keep up with my friends from study abroad, but I miss living in the same building as many of them. One positive side of modern technology is the extensive social networks we are able to build and maintain. During my travels abroad I have made many friends from different colleges and cities across the United States. One thing I am looking forward to this summer is reconnecting with members of the Amherst community. Although I did not see many Amherst people over the course of the semester, I was lucky enough to meet up with a few good friends.

Stuart sitting on bench with friend and cityscape of Madrid in background
Above is a picture taken from a weekend trip in Barcelona with my friend Olivia, who I met in my first year seminar at Amherst. She came all the way from Amsterdam to explore Barcelona with me, and I later visited her in Amsterdam for the world famous tulip season.
Stuart sitting on sidewalk bench with friend and palm tree and shrubbery in background
Above is a picture taken in Madrid with my friend Lanelle. We became friends during our first year at Amherst and planned our escape from the winter weather together. She spent the semester in Milan.

Another important lesson I learned from my semester abroad is how quickly time can pass. When I first arrived, I thought six months would feel like forever. However, things moved quickly from the beginning. My week-and-a-half long pre-semester seminar was filled with field trips and scuba diving lessons. Every night I fell into bed, exhausted from scuba diving lessons and day-long hikes. I had so many wonderful adventures throughout the semester, and yet, there is a whole list of places I didn’t make it to. One piece of advice I would give to other students who go abroad is to make a list of priorities at the start of the semester. Making a list helped me manage my time and motivated me to explore even when I felt tired.

I also learned the hard way not to take things for granted. During my spring break, I went to Paris with my partner. We happened to visit the Notre-Dame the day of the catastrophic fire. We had visited the church in the morning and decided not to wait in line for a tour. We spent half an hour outside the church, but I must admit that I didn’t take the time to fully appreciate the history and beauty of the inside. I decided that a peek would be enough for now, and I put the church on my list of places to explore in the future. By the end of the day, the Notre-Dame had been mostly destroyed. Watching such a historic building go up in flames made me rethink my assumption that historical sites are permanent structures. For the rest of the semester, I felt motivated to see and experience as many important pieces of history as I could.

Lots of people watching the Notre Dame in Paris burn, flames and lots of smoke in the background
Above is a picture taken across the water from the Notre-Dame. You can see the church on fire and the crowd of observers. It was an extremely powerful moment to see Parisians come together to mourn the loss of a piece of their collective history. Although the damage was extensive, the fires were put out before the entire building was lost.

So much of my learning this semester happened outside of the classroom. Struggling to adapt to an urban environment and floundering my way through a new language taught me how to overcome a wide variety of challenges. My time abroad has also helped me see some of the privileges I hold back at Amherst and at home. I have developed a broader perspective on both my education and my role as a global citizen. I do not feel as though my experiences were all encompassing or entirely unique, but I do feel like they represent a successful attempt to lean into discomfort. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been able to participate in the SU Madrid Center study abroad program.

Selfie of Stuart and his partner with Eiffel Tower in the distance
Above is a picture taken in Paris with my partner Michael, who is an Amherst College alumnus from the class of 2018. We spent two weeks together during spring break exploring Paris and London. It was the perfect way to bring together the freedom of my semester abroad and my love of Amherst.

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