In the office, we constantly have students asking, “Can I study abroad with COVID happening?”
Today I am excited to dive into the story of Milana, a student who spent her fall semester in Valencia.
Getting to Spain
When asked about her program, Milana jumped into quite the story of getting to Spain. While many students adjust some plans while going abroad (in the midst of a global pandemic), Milana was surprised to hear that her program was cancelled – TWICE! Her first cancelation was with USAC (her program provider) in Chile. Fortunately, she was able to transfer to a USAC program in Madrid. Then, just two weeks before she left, she found out that this program was also canceled. Milana, an expert at this point, contacted the girl who was supposed to be her roommate, and together they swapped to a third USAC program in Valencia, Spain.
I later asked about Milana’s highs and lows for her time abroad, and I was surprised to hear that a favorite moment was shortly after she arrived. Walking into Valencia, she looked around the crowded streets to see lights, art, monuments, and a giant celebration: it was the festival of “Las Fallas de Valencia.” Shewas able to spend her first week celebrating the beautiful festival, and then observe the traditional last night where the city burns all the monuments created for the week! While the chaos of getting there was a lot, the arrival seemed to make everything worth it for Milana.
COVID Norms in Europe
While some European countries are in lockdown, Milana’s days seemed to be relatively normal. She spent her mornings enjoying coffee on her balcony, while her afternoons were in class, and her evenings were filled with her language exchange partner whom she met in Spain. Milana traveled on weekends, learning about other regions of Spain and Europe.
“Honestly, I felt safer there in the global pandemic than I do here in the U.S. Everyone wore the N95 masks everywhere. And everyone was respectful about it,” Milana explained. She went on to express that the entire country was celebrating because over 90% of the population was vaccinated. “I never had one COVID scare, and neither did any of my friends.”
As for traveling around Europe, COVID didn’t seem to stop Milana. She traveled a lot within Spain, including Alicante, Madrid, and Barcelona. Outside of Spain, she went to the Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Italy. She talked about how anywhere in Europe, she would have to show a negative COVID test or show a vaccine card before entering certain restaurants or museums. “Everywhere was rather safe, and if someone wasn’t feeling the best, they would always sit in a different part of the classroom to be respectful.” To clarify, I asked “So, it sounds like everyone was pretty unified?” “Absolutely,” Milana replied.
The Biggest Challenge Abroad
Knowing that Milana was abroad during COVID, I expected her biggest challenge to be wearing masks or something of the sort, yet her response surprised me: “Culture Shock! I was not expecting that because I have traveled so many times, and I had spent the summer in Africa, so I didn’t think I would have it.” Yet, Milana found herself caught in culture shock for about 2-3 weeks. “I didn’t understand why I was so anxious and stressed all the time. But then I remembered from the study abroad pre-departure orientation that I might get culture shock. I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to isolate myself. So, I reached out to USAC (my program provider), and they ended up connecting me to counseling.” She did counseling for her entire time that she was in Spain with someone who spoke English, and she spoke on how it was incredibly beneficial for her. “It would have been 10x harder to integrate myself into the community and feel at home if I hadn’t reached out for help.” Milana serves as an incredible example that mental health and life struggles travel with us abroad: luckily, our office and our program providers work hard to meet these needs, even in the light of a pandemic.
At the end of our time, I asked Milana for any final advice for all the students who are maybe a little nervous about going abroad. She explained to me that the hardest part was finding the courage to go. “You have to factor in going to a different culture, being away from family, and many other things. But it is the most life-changing experience once you finally make the decision to go.” With a big smile on her face, she reflected back with awe on the fact that she was almost hesitant about going. I could see the stories flashing through her eyes of her favorite parts – being surprised by all her friends on her birthday, volunteering regularly with Spanish children, and her extreme growth in the language after a mountain of effort. “You don’t go back to the ‘pre-seeing the world’ life. Travel changes us because we grasp onto these little things, and we add them to ourselves. It has made me into a more independent caring person who is able to see things in new ways.”
Graduate Assistant, Office of Education Abroad