Don’t just be A presence, HAVE a presence: How I fostered my new community while studying abroad

Having the opportunity to study abroad in a foreign country is such a powerful and gratifying adventure. What better way to broaden your horizons than to fully immerse yourself in a foreign city some thousand miles away from your comfortable and convenient bubble back home! After being cooped up at home for over six months due to COVID-19 and taking countless online classes from my little desk in my college apartment with only a view of the creek below, I decided it was time to venture out into the open world once again. I craved adventure so deeply, and all I wanted to do was experience the beauty of our amazing and multicultural planet we all collectively call home.

Deciding which program I wanted to venture on was no easy task. I was originally born in Macedonia, Europe, and my mother, father, sister, and I immigrated to a small rural town called Laurel, Mississippi when I was just one and a half years old. I grew up speaking both English and Macedonian in my household, and I mostly use Macedonian to speak to my family that still lives in Macedonia. I have always had a passion for learning languages from early on. I was enrolled in my first Spanish class when I was in the ninth grade, and since that instant, I knew I wanted to continue to study the Spanish language and culture. I am currently a rising junior at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS and I am studying Biochemistry on the pre-med track with a minor in Spanish language.

My first visit to Spain was in the summer of 2015 when my church youth group and I walked the last 100 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago. This was such an incredible pilgrimage, with much time to reflect on who I am and what my future holds for me. I absolutely fell in love with Spain that summer, and I dreamed of going back. With my interest and passion for Spanish language and culture, I finally decided to study abroad in Granada, Spain for the month of June.

I would be lying if I said I was not nervous to study abroad in a foreign country after only taking two semesters of Spanish in college, especially since I was coming to Spain alone: I had no previous friends in, or knowledge about, Granada. It was just me and my mediocre Spanish skills taking the bull by its horns. My first impressions of Granada were that this city is nothing short of spectacular. Although I live in the United States, which is referred to as a “melting pot” country, I noticed a magnificent mix of a diversity of history, cultures, architecture, and population in Granada.  Granada is a city in southern Spain located in the Andalusia region at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The city is rich in history; it is home to The Alhambra, which was a palace and fortress for the Moorish Nasrid dynasty during the 9th century. The cobblestone streets are filled with bustling markets and many, many gelato shops (my personal favorite). Being encompassed by the immense diversity of Granada is definitely an advantage when learning. It is a true factor in every success. Surrounding yourself with differing perspectives and personalities will prepare you to spot opportunities, anticipate problems, and create original ideas and viewpoints in the future.  I am astonished by the city of Granada, and I know this will be a summer I never want to end.

View of the Alhambra from the Mirador de San Nicolas in the Albaicín Neighborhood of Granada.
Patio de los Leones is the main courtyard in the heart of the Alhambra, the Moorish citadel in Granada, Spain

As I am writing this, I have officially been in Granada for two weeks. My first days in the city were full of meeting new friends, professors, and becoming adjusted to my host family. Not knowing anyone before coming to a foreign country can be intimidating and I was ready to be pushed out of my comfort zone. I met the other students in my program, and we immediately connected. I had not even known them for a week when a group of us rented an Airbnb in Almuñécar, Spain to spend the long holiday weekend of Corpus Christi at the crystal-clear beaches of Spain’s southern coast. It can sometimes be a little challenging to make friends, but the most important thing to remember is that many others are in the same boat as you are. It is important to create a sense of community with others in your program, as well as your classmates that might be in other courses. You are all in this adventure to learn, grow, and become world citizens together.

One of the most rewarding experiences for me is living with a host family while I am in Granada. Living with a homestay is definitely a unique way to foster a sense of community while you are abroad. It has allowed me to absorb the rhythm of the Spanish language, the local accents, and the everyday language that is used outside of a classroom setting. After a long and eventful day of learning Spanish, I come home and hang out with my host family, whether that be watching local game shows on TV, talking about our hobbies, or eating a meal together. Even though I am not physically in a classroom, I am still submerged in the culture and language of my community. My host family has also helped me become adjusted to the new city. They have shown me the famous monuments and churches, where to visit on the weekend, the best beaches in Spain, and even how to take the city bus from my apartment to school! My host family has given me a home away from home. Each day is a new adventure, and it has provided a new understanding of what it means to be a part of society abroad.

The Catedral de Granada, Santa Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana de la Encarnación de Granada is a Roman Catholic church in the heart of the city of Granada. This is a common meeting spot for my friends and me!

I love making new friends wherever I go whether it be the second I met my host family or at the coffee shop my classmates and I go to every day in between classes. Speaking with locals and making connections with them is how you learn the language! When you know the local language, it becomes easier to know the people. Seek out those that do not speak your native language, and you will realize how much your skills improve in just a couple of days. While in Granada, I have met many native Spanish students who are also studying at the University of Granada. The Spaniards love to hang out with the students in my program because it is a way for them to practice their English with us and it allows us to practice our Spanish with people our age. We all love to hang out together on the weekends, and they show us around the city and take us to their favorite discotecas. I have also grown close with my classmates, and every day in between our morning classes we walk down the street to a nearby coffee shop called “I need coffee”. We have gone there so much over the course of two weeks that the owner knows our names and what we like to order. My classmates and I love to ask him about his life, and it is a great way to gain trust with the people you surround yourself with. Speaking the native language allows you to understand your community’s culture better and build trust with the people around you. Being open with people from Granada and building friendships with other students or even baristas has given me the opportunity to gain confidence and independence in myself while abroad.

These are my classmates during my study abroad program! We are enrolled in the Intensive Spanish Classes at the Center of Modern Languages through the University of Granada. It is never a boring time in class with them!

Wherever there is a sense of community, citizens value their relationships with others around them, the well-being of their city, and strive to have personal growth. The fundamental key to foster your community while studying abroad is to become involved in it. After all, it is where you are going to spend most of your time during your program. Be open-minded to learning new topics and integrating into the rich cultures of your host country. Do not be timid to speak in your host country’s language and communicate with the residents. Every day is a new adventure with fresh opportunities to explore, grow culturally, and become intertwined in your host country’s society. Never stop learning and always remember to fully immerse yourself in the beauty and riches that your country has to offer.

Eva Kiparizoska is a student at the University of Mississippi and an ISA Identity & Inclusion Blogger. She is studying abroad with ISA in Granada, Spain

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