Stories that Shaped Us: Language and Identity

Ashley Witherspoon is an ISA Madrid alumna and current ISA/TEAN Global Ambassador and North Carolina State alumna whose experience abroad during summer 2022 helped her grow confident in who she is and in her identity.

We reached out to learn more about why she chose to go abroad with ISA Spain and how her study abroad experience challenged her comfort zone in the Spanish language and as a new traveler. Check out this unique story below.

While I can’t say I’ve always known I was going to study abroad in college, I can say, that for as long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about studying Spanish. Ten years ago (wow, ten?) I signed up for an introductory Spanish course to fulfill my middle school’s foreign language requirement. I had no Spanish background and was unsure of what to expect, or who to expect it from. Looking back, I never thought that I would grow to love or enjoy learning the language, let alone as a college student an entire decade later…but here we are! 

I wasn’t torn on where I wanted to study abroad, because I knew I wanted to be immersed in a Spanish-speaking country. Not only did it make sense because of my Spanish minor, but I also wanted to expand my knowledge of the language and broaden my worldview. I figured there would be no greater way to finish out my undergraduate career than by completing my Spanish coursework in Spain. I would be lying if I said there weren’t hurdles that stood in my way. While I’ve had my fair share of travel opportunities and exploration with friends and family, a study abroad experience was a daunting feat that I knew I wanted to pursue, but never actually thought I would. Not only had I never been on an airplane by myself, but I’d also never flown directly to another country either.

Even though I’d been studying Spanish for 10 years, I didn’t feel like I was “qualified” enough to make Spanish my lifeline for an entire month; living in the U.S., relying on the language has always been optional, but never required.

Thus, creating blog posts like this, and spotlighting alumni stories from students like myself, will hopefully inspire students who look like me, to pursue their study abroad goals and in doing so, feel like there are people who can relate to them, as well.

In addition to that, I’m an African American applicant and very few people at my school look like me, so I knew that the chances of us being represented in study abroad were even less. And most obviously, we were in the midst of an entire global pandemic, and everything was in disarray both with the prospect of studying abroad, and the entire structure of our world and how we knew it to be. So, in all reality, it definitely felt like everything that could’ve stood in my way did!

Once I arrived in Madrid, Spain through NC State’s Study Abroad partner, ISA, I immediately realized how vital my Spanish was going to be. I didn’t go to Spain expecting to be able to use much English but found that I seldom needed it when speaking to anyone other than study abroad participants or ISA staff. As soon as I landed in Spain, I became immersed in Spanish culture and very few things were the same. The canon images that you see on Google were my life’s pictured for the entire month.  Speaking with the locals, I learned that many people had the idea that all parts of the USA were exactly like Los Angeles, or New York. Busy, and crowded, yet strikingly beautiful. It was common for dinner to be eaten at 10pm, and tipping wasn’t a thing. Whenever we paid for our food, the card reader was always brought to us, rather than servers taking it to the back to run payment. Siesta, or midday nap, time is more common than not, and culture/history are rich and valued. It was always warm and hardly ever rained. Oh, and the McDonald’s menu is vastly different, too. One thing that initially stood out to me was that there are differences between the types of Spanish spoken in different parts of the world. For example, certain words are not understood in Puerto Rico if you were taught Spain Spanish. Understanding this difference gave me a lot more clarity when having conversations with someone who didn’t understand the word I was taught to use. 

There were also a number of similarities between Spain, and back home, too. I was the minority and almost never saw anyone who looked like me. I still had to figure out how to advocate for myself, and my food allergy – but this time, in Spanish. Since I’m used to being one of few people of color in a space, it wasn’t unusual for me, but instead, became a catalyst when thinking of ways to reach other marginalized students who are also pursuing study abroad opportunities. I was usually outside of my comfort zone when navigating spaces alone, like the commute to school every day via the underground metro, translating things I didn’t fully understand from Spanish to English, and the adjustments associated with getting used to being more than 2.5 hours away from home for a month. 

As I mentioned previously, I am used to being the minority at my university. When I arrived at college as an undergrad, I began to notice how seldom anyone in a space resembled me and grew to always pay attention to the things that I felt others weren’t noticing. While abroad, I noticed that I was always one of the few people of color (POC) at school, and within the city. I was initially surprised that my study abroad classes were composed of other study abroad students from universities across the United States, but I also felt a sense of comfort in being surrounded by people who could relate to me in that way. I found that this is what made my experience feel a lot like “home”. Although we had all traveled from various parts of the United States, only one or two of us were POC. Ultimately, my study abroad experiences have taught me a number of things that have been catalysts for my growth, including my passion for diversity & inclusion. Having someone who looks like me represented in spaces is important because it inspires me to believe that I could possibly be in their position one day, too. Or further, that the opportunity is attainable, or available to me as well. Students who do not see themselves represented are less likely to be involved in such capacities. Emphasizing how much representation matters is vital to creating welcoming and inclusive spaces. Thus, creating blog posts like this, and spotlighting alumni stories from students like myself, will hopefully inspire students who look like me, to pursue their study abroad goals and in doing so, feel like there are people who can relate to them, as well.

Day trip to Toledo, Spain. I wanted to make sure the landscape was included in the background! I’d also just bought that “Madrid” hat and wanted to include it in a photo!

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that simply following my passions has opened a world of opportunities for me. When I decided to declare a Spanish minor as an undergraduate, I thought that I was only doing what I loved, but never really thought to consider that I would be able to inspire others somehow, too. I also never realized the opportunities that would become available to me because of it, either. Studying abroad during a pandemic was an experience of a lifetime, and if I had to do it all over again, I would. For those who may be interested in studying abroad, I would say, let your passions make room for you to grow, and eventually, opportunities that challenge your growth will become a passion for you, too. There is no better way to challenge yourself to grow than to study abroad. You’ll learn more about how cultural factors contribute to the way you recognize the world, and you will understand what it means to be diverse through your study abroad adventure, too

Curious to hear more from ISA/TEAN alumni? Read more blogs from Spain Alumni or explore other inspirational experiences study abroad participants have had.

Inspired by Ashley’s journey and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your adventure today!

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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