Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Halle (like Halle Berry). I’m a Marketing/ Mandarin Chinese student at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. I’m passionate about people, creativity, entrepreneurship, and living in the world of possibilities. I spend my free time doing anything from hosting a Belgium Waffle Bar in my apartment to blogging about smart people in my life, anything from solving incredibly difficult riddles to hitting the Latin dance clubs in Boston. I approach the world with the mindset that “Life is an adventure,” part of which led me straight to Colombia.
Of all the Spanish speaking countries, why did you choose Colombia?
My father is of Latino decent, but growing up, I lacked access to the language and the culture. I entered college with a burning desire to learn about my roots and someday, claim them as my own. I received a lot of pushback from Latinos who told me I didn’t “count” and I couldn’t just decide one day to “become Latina.” Regardless of this lack of support, Colombian people were quick to take me in, teach me all they could, and help make this dream a reality. It was an easy decision for me to study abroad in Colombia, the country full of some of the only people who have helped me along my journey.
In doing my research, I came across ISA. As a marketing student, I’m very aware of the way companies portray what they have to offer. ISA did this in an incredibly organized, trustworthy, and authentic way. Upon my first phone call with in ISA representative from the Texas office, I knew that this was the way to go. Both on and off-site ISA staff have helped to make this a safe, enjoyable, and life-changing experience.
How’s your host fam?
I chose to do independent housing, mainly because I had a friend in Boston who was originally from Barranquilla. I lived with her family throughout my time in Colombia, and every new day proved to be a blessing. Lazy Sundays at the pool, authentic Colombian cuisine cooking lessons, teaching English classes to my host parents right after my Spanish lessons from them, struggling to tell hilarious stories in the opposite language, and all the little experiences in between have not only been memories made, but life lessons learned. It was incredibly rewarding to watch these relationships grow as my knowledge of Spanish increased. I feel at home in Barranquilla in general, but especially in my homestay.
What were some stigmas or stereotypes about Colombia that you’ve seen busted since you’ve been there?
People’s concerns about Colombia typically revolve around perceived violence and danger. We busted this stigma very fast by simply learning how to be smart in adapting to this new environment. ISA does an excellent job teaching us everything we need to know – everything from negotiating taxi fares to bus riding tips, when to be on high alert, when to avoid certain areas, when to leave your cell phone at home, and so on. The other big stigma stems from the fact that Colombia is a 3rd world country. While this may indeed be a reality, Colombians themselves have busted the supposed relationship between living with less and living less happily. Interestingly enough, Colombians use the word “rico” (which can be translated to “rich”) to describe everything from a cold glass of water on a hot day to the refreshing coastal breeze felt at night, a beautiful sunset in your own backyard or the awesome day you just had. Colombians have taught me to see “richness” in things that don’t cost money, an invaluable lesson to have learned.
Carnaval! Everybody talks about it–was it as good as we hear it is? (And can you show us your pictures?)
Yes, Carnaval was as exciting as it sounds. 4 days of parades, parties, friendship and food, especially a Colombian street-rendition of the famous shish-kabob. It was thrilling and eye opening to see an entire city join together, regardless of age, color, social class, shape, size, or any other factor that tends to cause a divide in a community. Thousands of people spent the entire long weekend celebrating the incredible city of Barranquilla. I met a ton of foreigners throughout the weekend that proved that now, not only is Barranquilla celebrating, but really, the world is celebrating.
Where is your favorite place to travel for fun in Colombia? Why?
By now, I’ve been to quite a few places in Colombia, enough that Colombians often tell me that I know more of their country than they do. While I’ve enjoyed each of my trips and ISA excursions, I’d have to say my favorite was Cartagena. I’m from a small town, but have always had a big city mentality. I loved seeing this beautiful old city, hand crafted to perfection. It’s safe, beautiful, and full of people to meet and places to explore, a hot spot for souvenir purchases, and a great weekend getaway. I’ve already been 3 times, and with just 2 weeks until I go home, I’m still trying to plan another trip.
Could you tell us about 3 different friends that you’ve made?
I’ve made excellent friends through my time here in Colombia, but a few stand out in particular.
1) Junior – only 8 years old, Junior and I became awesome friends one Saturday morning when I was participating in an UniNorte sponsored volunteering trip to the nearby town of Salgar. We teach a big group of awesome kids English in creative and effective ways. I gave Junior about 20 minutes of access to my camera, and he was hooked. I’ve never seen a kid so in his element. Every Saturday now, I look forward to getting dropped off on the side of the road in Salgar, and seeing Junior run excitedly down the street to give me a hug.
2) Claire – A fellow ISA student, Claire and I didn’t immediately gravitate towards each other upon first meeting. It took about a week to have a real conversation, and 2 months to start building a friendship. With lots of time, great talks, and endless amounts of our comfort food – Peanut Butter – Claire has become a lifelong friend of mine. We committed to helping each other get the most out of this experience, and to say the last, we’re leaving Colombia different people and a great testimony to the fact that any time spent in Barranquilla is time not wasted, and that Barranquilla leaves you better than it found you.
3) As it’s quite common here in Colombia as compared to the US, there is a woman who works in my host family’s house, cooking and cleaning. At first, it was very hard for me to accept her doing these things for me, especially considering I didn’t have the words in Spanish to express my true gratitude. As time passed and my Spanish improved, I started to sit down and have conversations with this woman about life, love, family, parenting, and lots and lots of story time. She has become a real friend of mine that I miss when I go on weekend excursions, that I can’t wait to go home to and tell about the day’s crazy events, and that I’m so enthusiastically looking forward to blessing in a big way. My goal is to start a secret savings fund for her, and fundraise her plane tickets, hotel fares and everything else needed to bring her, her husband, and her 3 kids to NYC for a weekend – her dream. She’s made an incredible impact on my life, just by being herself.
What advice do you have for students who want to go to Colombia?
My first piece of advice is – do it. My second piece of advice is to come with a list of personal goals. This is your opportunity to work on things that we’re often too “busy” for when we’re living the common US lifestyle. My third piece of advice is to both blog and journal throughout the entire semester, and to take lots of photos. My fourth piece of advice is to realize that this is the best time and place to improve your Spanish. Engage often with Spanish-speaking students, spend your TV time watching all your favorites in Spanish on Netflix, read as much as you can, and this one I stress – sit in your host family’s living room and make a habit of talking every night, starting your first night here. The conversation will be difficult at first, but one of the things you’ll miss the most when you realize it’s time to go home. Lastly, this opportunity is as much of an opportunity as you let it be, and will impact you as much as you give it room to. Let it be, and give it that room. You will come here to learn Spanish, and leave having learned life.
How have you grown as a person during your semester abroad?
Stepping foot in Colombia, I had personal goals of coming to a new-found sense of humility, learning how to be a beginner at things, and of furthering my goal of identifying as Latina. I’m proud to say that through the tough, but incredibly warm love of this beautiful country and it’s people, I’m well on my way to accomplishing all 3. Colombia has a way of humbling you, teaching you gratitude, and supporting your positive change and growth with unconditional love. It’s the perfect place to dive in, use every drop of courage you have, learn a lot, explore a lot, and leave feeling like a true, heart-felt, everlasting Barranquillero. I have gained not only a new perspective on the world, but a new piece of the world that I will hold dearly in my heart.
Want to read more from Halle? Check out her fantastic personal blog, Raising the Barr.