During my first year Spanish class, our professor talked to us about study abroad and encouraged us to strongly consider the possibilities before us. She told us about the college-sponsored study abroad program in Cordoba, a lovely city in southern Spain known for its history and culture. She mentioned that Buenos Aires, Argentina, was a popular site for study abroad among many Spanish students. And then she began to tell us about the Program for Mexican Culture and Society in Puebla, and I was immediately intrigued. In that moment, barely into my first year of college and first semester of college-level Spanish, I knew that I had a concrete goal for myself. I was drawn to the program for its dedication to full immersion, including studying along with Mexican students in a public university and living with a local host family, which I knew would drastically improve my language proficiency as well as increase my understanding of Mexican culture and daily life. I was also drawn to the program for its location – in the heart of Mexico. I felt like I could travel to Spain, Argentina or a similar country with relative ease, seeing historical sites and navigating around cities with help from tour guides, with other Americans. But I felt like the opportunity provided by PMCSP was truly one of a kind – and I took it.
On the plane ride to Mexico City, I was frankly terrified. At the moment when the flight attendants started speaking in Spanish rather than English, my stomach dropped. Was I really ready for this experience? Were my language skills sufficient enough to effectively interact with the people around me? Would I embarrass myself in class? Would I make friends with the other students in the program and at school? Would my host family like me?
The answer to all these questions turned out to be a resounding “yes!” While my confidence and abilities in Spanish were not at the level that I would have liked them to be before coming to Mexico, they definitely were more than satisfactory when I left. I was able to communicate with virtually everybody I met, gradually improving. The first night that I dreamed in Spanish, halfway through the program, I proudly told my host mother. She hugged me, and then hurried to tell all the other members of my host family about my great achievement! I was able to navigate the town of Puebla with relative ease, only a few weeks into the program, taking busses around the city and exploring curving, cobblestone streets by day and going out with my friends and host family at night. I did embarrass myself in class occasionally… one particularly memorable language glitch was when I used the word “werewolf” to describe a man in a painting who was decidedly human during a Sociology class. And, to be honest, there was even a moment where I literally slipped and fell on my face while walking to class, in the middle of campus (and afterwards, I bought shoes with better traction!) I cultivated many close friendships with both my fellow study abroad students and my university classmates, regularly going to a coffee shop for a “cafecito” in the charming downtown. Most significantly, I formed a loving, supportive relationship with my host family almost immediately. They welcomed me into the family with open arms, and by the end of my semester I really felt like a true family member, as they coaxed along my language development and understanding of cultural norms and Mexican society and traditions. I went on family vacations with them, gave my advice when they asked me about kitchen renovations, and sat around the dinner table for hours at a time. I talk to them regularly on Skype and through email, hearing about how my little host niece has grown (she now is really talking – I remember singing the alphabet to her over lunch!) and the studies of my host siblings in college. They are very interested in my academic life, as well as when I will be coming back to visit them!
Now that I’m back at college in the U.S., I have two special photos on my desk that I sporadically look at when I’m in the middle of concentrating on a tough essay or plodding my way through a dense article, feeling frustrated and like giving up. One photo is a picture that one of my PMCSP friends took of me, one day early into our program orientation in Mexico City. I did one of the things I thought would be impossible – I climbed a real pyramid, overcoming some deep-seated fears and a racing heartbeat, with the help of my fellow students and program staff. I’m standing on top of Teotihuacan, one of the largest pyramids in the Americas, built about a hundred years Before Common Era. I look relaxed, confident, and proud. The other photo is one of me with my host family, dressed up for the goodbye dinner put on the PMCSP. Dressed up in Sunday-best suits and dresses, we are standing close together, with huge smiles on our faces. Despite the differences in appearance, I think we look like a true, genuine family. I keep these pictures close by to remind me of my semester in Mexico – the adventures and once-in-a-lifetime experiences I had there, the connections I made, and my enormous personal growth – from the very beginning to the end of my time studying abroad with PMCSP.