Sarah Ponce is a rising senior majoring in Biology and Spanish with a chemistry minor. Her career goal is to become a bilingual psychiatrist and obtain a Masters in Public Health. She is also First-Generation student and was the first of her family to travel outside of North America to study abroad in Granada, Spain. Read about how Sarah reflected on her personal identity throughout her study abroad experience and what she loved most about her travels.
Why would I participate in the culture that historically treated my culture as inferior? Aren’t there any colleges near home, my grandparents would ask. Why can’t you learn Spanish in my hometown, in Mexico? Where is Spain on the map, anyways?
These questions, although I was happy to answer them, truly pained me since they revealed such a large disconnect of understanding between my grandparents and me. The mere fact that I would return from my semester in Spain with the ability to communicate with my family soothed me. I knew that I would make the trip to my grandparent’s hometowns after solidifying my Spanish language skills. I can truly absorb what my relatives have to teach me about work ethic, faith, and unity. I chose to practice these communication skills in the south of Spain and to learn what exactly about Spanish culture makes Mexicans and other mestizos Hispanic. I went to Spain to investigate why, perhaps were my grandfathers so resentful towards a whole nationality and in what ways could I investigate the complexity of this culture so simply portrayed to me as the enemy.
As a mestizo person of Mexican descent, I found that the Granada semester offered explanations for some traditions that have been passed down through the generations to my family. On the other hand, through taking the Spanish Culture Class from ILACA and a class on Islamic culture in Spain, my eyes were opened to social and political injustices in Spain such as the ongoing social and economic impacts of the colonization of the Americas, oppression of varying religious groups during the Inquisition, and the atrocities committed by Francisco Franco during his dictatorship. I was also able to learn about inspiring political and artistic movements throughout Spain’s history and about the truly diverse and rich Spanish culture.
Top: “Valle de los Caídos”, Valley of the Fallen Chapel, where Francisco Franco is buried along with innumerable unidentified victims of his regime. Bottom: The street where Fr. Junípero Serra, founder of the California missions, grew up (Petra, Mallorca).
Sarah and her parents on her apartment terrace in Granada during their visit.
I had the opportunity to explore the diverse Spanish landscape as well. I traveled to different regions within Andalucía as well as other Autonomous Communities such as, Extremadura, Castile and León, Madrid, the Balearic Islands, the Basque Country in the north, and the Canary Islands in the continent of Africa. Luckily, I found a very affordable flight out of Milan, Italy to return home to the US, so I also spent a day in Florence with my best friend.
Sarah and friends Nicole and Izzy hiking in Zumaia, Basque Country.
Not only was I able to study abroad as a pre-med student, but I was granted an amazing opportunity to intern in a Spanish hospital while I was in Granada; I was able to gain insight into how the American health care system contrasts with that of the Spanish health care system, ask Spanish health care professionals what their opinions were on the health care system, as well as gain first-hand experience witnessing surgeries, emergency room visits, and various medical procedures. I am extremely grateful for my placement in this internship program and encourage other pre-health students to take advantage of this once in a life time opportunity to immerse yourself in Spanish culture and to learn medical Spanish.
My favorite class I took was a contemporary Spanish art history class because I was able to engage in the humanities to learn about how Spanish history has influenced art and vice-versa, something I don’t get to do often as a Biology major. In learning about the historical art and architecture of Spain, I reflected on the historical places I visited in my travels and came across in my day-to-day life, and felt I was just a small part of the story of humanity. This class along with Spanish Culture and History and Islamic Culture in Spain classes counted for some of my University of Portland core and Spanish major credits, which helped me stay on track when I returned to the University to complete my Biology degree and Chemistry minor. Everyone’s path looks a little bit different, so check with your advisor to see if this will help you stay on track with your major as well.
Sarah and friend Ibraheem in front of the Gibralfaro Castle in Malaga, Spain.
I was also able to drastically improve my Spanish speaking and grammar skills through the month long intensive grammar course and the semester long Oral, Pronunciation, and Exposition course.
However, these courses would not have been effective if it weren’t for my persistence in speaking Spanish throughout the day. I also saw a Spanish speaking psychologist during my time in Spain, and this not only helped me to diversify my Spanish vocabulary, but to effectively cope with all of the changes and challenges that come with studying abroad or living in a new place.
This counseling, as well as support from my host parents, friends, and program directors helped me to adapt to the Spanish lifestyle. Spanish culture emphasizes community through traditions and social gatherings, and this cultural aspect was also one of my greatest teachers. I found that in order to get the best out of this environment, I must spend more time at intercambios (language exchange meet-ups), speaking with friends, strangers, and my amazing host parents in Spanish, and asking questions.
Sarah with UP friends and Granadino friends in the Albaícin.
As a Biology major I was used to relying on my study habits in order to be successful. However, I soon learned that success while studying abroad is not based on grades or recitation of rules. Success is based on the richness of the relationships I form through the Spanish language, and my exploration of completely foreign ideas and places. It turns out, when I prioritized communicating in Spanish, this reflected in higher grades as well! Immersion in the Spanish language and culture caused a transformation in me as a science student and as an individual that I would not trade for the world.
I kept these lessons close to my heart after returning to Portland, and while I continued to prioritize my relationships, I was plunged back into the world of science. I found it difficult to re-learn some of my study habits, and re-adapt to the pace of life. I advise anyone coming back from studying abroad to be patient with themselves because living abroad is one of the most impactful times of our lives. You most likely will return with a different world view, and it is important to integrate this new version of yourself back into the old routine.
I am eternally grate to have had my parents visit Spain and see what my life was like in Granada. They then were able to share stories of their travels with my other family members. I know my family is proud of the person I am becoming, and I know in my heart that I owe a large portion of that growth to the obstacles and adventures of studying abroad.