When I received the call from ISA’s office in Austin, TX in December to notify me of my Castañeda scholarship award, I was bouncing inside between a mix of shock and joy. I remember not knowing how to exactly respond on the phone, unexpected as it was, other than a generous ‘thank you,’ saying how much I looked forward to being sent more details on the scholarship award. Even with all the diligent work I put forth on my application, I simply did not expect all my effort to eventually pay off in the end. One of the most prestigious awards ISA offers, the Dr. Carlos E. Castañeda Memorial Scholarship and Correspondent Internship Opportunity Award is both a merit and financial need-based award for students studying abroad who meet particular eligibility as well as demonstrate certain leadership and service credentials. The accolade, for who it is named, is written in the memory of Dr. Castañeda, an immigrant from Mexico who later became an important historian at the University of Texas at Austin and a strong advocate for Mexican-American civil rights. Students who are bestowed this award receive $2,000 and an opportunity to contribute to ISA as a student blogger and office support intern, depending on the needs of their local ISA study abroad office. The ultimate goals of this endowment are to enhance cultural awareness, and provide students, who may not be otherwise able, the linguistic skills essential in a modern-day, globalized workplace.
After the ISA office quickly followed-up with the details of the award, thinking of my future in mind first, I decided to use half of the monetary amount to replace one of my student loans, which left me about $1,000 to spend freely on personal travel while abroad. The first trip I planned outside the ISA Granada group weekend excursions, was to the center of Málaga at the southern coast of Andalucía. With no added cost, I was able to enjoy the beautiful Mediterranean beach at the Costa del Sol, visit contemporary art and Pompidou museums, hike up to see the old Castle of Gibralfaro and the Alcazaba of Málaga, try free food samples at the Moorish-built Ataranzanas market, and explore the city streets. Although I missed a visit to the Picasso Art museum with its early Sunday afternoon closing, I am happy with all I was able to experience and pack into a short three-day trip.
Given my ISA Scholarship, I made one of my dreams come true by stepping foot in Italy, the home country of my ancestors. Those days of walking through the pathways of Rome on the street-view tool in Google Earth were long gone as suddenly it became a reality. The minute I stepped off the plane, I felt a sense of comfort even surrounded in a country I never been and by a language I can only speak little of. I took advantage of this cultural experience to communicate with locals the best I can, in a mash between English, Spanish and Italian. My wonderful Airbnb stay with an Italian family allowed me to get in touch with my ancestral Italian roots even more as I asked about their culture and requested that they speak to me in Italian, in addition to Spanish and English. Though my head hurt at the end of the day, I was surprised at how much I could understand and pick up just in a few days. During this visit, I saw the Colosseum and Roman Forum, Basilica of Saint Peter, the Vatican museums, the Pantheon, and numerous other monuments that only could be recalled, rather than named. After participating in a day-long concert celebration of Labor Day, for the ‘Primo Maggio’, I took advantage of a free city tour where I learned about one of my paternal ancestors, Giuseppe Vasi, who was an 18th century, well-known Sicilian artist.
Another highlighting trip I had pursued while abroad was to Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. Surprisingly in hindsight, this was the personal excursion I was least initially excited about. However, it actually turned out to be my best and most memorable experience outside of Spain. I never felt safer in a city before than I felt in Amsterdam. After sharing my positive impressions of the city with my very kind Dutch Airbnb host, she credited them to the strong social system in the Netherlands that provides more support to its people than most other places. I was also highly impressed by the green beauty of the city, its sustainable design – with bike lanes everywhere – and the glistening of its abundant canals. Through my free city tour with Sandeman, I learned how Amsterdam is also the most multicultural city in the world, representing over 180 nationalities. Even with such diversity, it has one of the highest rankings of equality, which is not a surprise in a city where same-sex marriage was first legalized in 2001. During my stay I visited many parts of the city, including the Look Out and Eye museums, and maybe took a curious peak or two inside one of the scandalous ‘lust’ shops in its center.
Other trips I took were to Barcelona and Gran Canaria, which are both two well-known parts of Spain that are a little hard to reach from Granada, given the distance. In Barcelona, I was interested to see the unique architecture, that are partly leftovers the infamous Antoni Gaudi’s time, such as the still unfinished Sagrada Familia and the beautiful Parque Guell. I was also able to experience the culture of Catalonia through the city and with my local Airbnb stay. I was surprised at how little Spanish influence this large tourist city contained, even during a traditional holiday on the week of La Semana Santa. The majority of the restaurants and public spaces put written Catalan first before Spanish or English as a symbol of the regional identitym, and it’s not uncommon to see more Catalonian flags than those of Spain, hung up through the city streets.
During my short stay in the Gran Canaria (part of the Canary Islands), I enjoyed the calming warmth of the beach, and learned more about the islands that represent the first colonized territories of Spain, during the time of Christopher Columbus. I visited the Casa de Colon, a museum dedicated to the discovery of how the islands were used during Columbus’ expeditions to the Americas during the 15th and 16th centuries. Traversing through the more impoverished parts of the island I was not surprised to find demonstrations of resistance from the local people, and contradiction to the national Spanish identity, as well as a feeling that the islands are exploited Spanish colonies, than respected autonomous communities of Spain.
All these travel experiences, made possible through the ISA Castañeda scholarship award, granted me the opportunity to have my eyes opened a bit further, my mind enriched with new knowledge, and my heart more sensitive to the world and the people with which I share it. The most important lesson these experiences have taught me is that although we may all have something special to offer to the world, we must also allow life to offer us the same. It’s important to live in each moment, appreciate each experience, and have gratitude for each person that comes our way, before the chance passes us. As I continue to adapt this piece of learned wisdom into my life, I would recommend for others to take the opportunity to travel while abroad, and take advantage of the ISA Castañeda award, or other similar scholarship programs, to make these life-changing dreams even more of a reality.
The world awaits…discover it.