The Highs and Lows of Intercultural Learning

It was once said that the truest sign of wisdom is the knowledge that you know very little. Studying abroad is an experience that will allow you to grow in wisdom and experience through the challenges you face and everything you will learn from the new culture in which you will immerse yourself. Learning through studying abroad necessitates humility, curiosity, and fortitude. 

When I first arrived in Medellín, Colombia, I immediately experienced culture shock. I was suddenly surrounded by a starkly different landscape, everything in a foreign language, and I moved into a house with strangers I had never met. Even little things were different. I could no longer find my favorite comfort food, Orville Redenbacher Popcorn, at the grocery store and I had to navigate the city through the Metro or Uber, both of which I had never used more than a handful of times before. 

The first and most challenging change I had to adapt to was not being able to immediately express myself as eloquently or easily. I had an intermediate-high level of Spanish, by US standards, before arriving in Medellín, but that quickly felt insufficient. When I first arrived, I was very quiet at home and at school because I was scared to make mistakes with my Spanish and cultural norms, so I held back due to my pride.

Particularly in my university’s Colombian Literature class, which is entirely in Spanish with native students, I got extremely frustrated when I was at a slower pace to understand the deeper meaning of the texts. Often by the time I had processed my own thoughts, the other native students had already shared their beautifully stated ideas on the text. 

Rather than getting frustrated, which I did many times, I had to learn to give myself grace. Intercultural learning is not the same as learning anything from a classroom in the US. Intercultural learning is about embracing the struggle, giving yourself grace with all the mistakes you will make, forsaking your pride, and not allowing fear of error to hold you back from experiencing what is around you.

Since I have finally began to allow myself to make errors, I have been able to make great friends, truly enjoy my classes, greatly improve my Spanish, and learn so much about Colombian history and culture. 

I say all this to you fully acknowledging the difficulty of it. You will have moments when you feel stupid and frustrated. But I can confidently tell you the rewards you will reap through studying abroad are incomparable. There is no other way to learn a culture other than becoming a part of it. This adventure for me has been full of ups and downs and I truly would not change a single part of it for anything in the world. When I first got here, I was daunted by the prospect of living in Colombia for 5 months, and now I am halfway through and wanting time to slow down because I have so much more to learn and I am eager to do so, making many errors along the way. 

Corinne McCaw is a college student at Samford University. She is an ISA Featured Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in Medellín, Colombia.

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