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Five months in Iberia

As of Monday, Sept. 24, I’ll have been back in Maine for exactly three months. I’m still struggling to come to a conclusion on the importance of my time in Santiago de Compostela.

I met with my study abroad advisor to debrief on the semester, and we spoke about my lack of credit from the University in Santiago. I didn’t pass a single class, whether it was due to the language barrier or my lack of urgency in getting my act together before things went off the rails, I don’t know. Most likely a combination of both. I should have recognized the signs, considering that I’ve been in almost the same situation once before. I failed my first semester at the University of Maine before switching from studying civil engineering to journalism and Spanish.

The advisor told me that they were done sending students to Santiago. The other UMaine student who was there had a slightly more successful semester, but in the advisor’s words it was “far from stellar.” She said it wasn’t worth sending students to a place with where they continually fail to succeed.

I regret that I didn’t have a more academically successful spring but I don’t accept that the fruitfulness of a semester abroad should be judged purely on the number of credits received at the end of it. That’s not why I was there and I value the experience in every other regard.

I lived in a medieval apartment building with mildewed stone walls and dripping ceilings, and walked by a 943-year-old cathedral every day on the way to class. I built friendships with students from 19 nations on four continents. Together, we explored Galicia, a part of Spain that gets blank looks from almost anyone who asks where I studied. We tried to learn Gallego, a language with less than 2 million native speakers, and I achieved a grasp of the Spanish language that I had found unreachable for the prior nine years of my studies.

During time off from school, I met my family in Lisbon and toured Portugal and southwestern Spain with them. I was able to watch my father return to his childhood home after more than 40 years away and relive his formative years in the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited. We explored empty groves of cork and olive trees and then bought wine stoppered with those corks and olives harvested from those trees.

I understand UMaine’s reasoning for halting the exchange program with the University of Santiago de Compostela, but perhaps with a little more preparation, things would have been different. If someone had told me that I would be taking classes in Gallego, I could have begun studying the language before showing up oblivious on the first day of class.

I know that it’s impossible for any other student to have the same journey I did, and any experiences elsewhere in the world can be just as fruitful. Saying otherwise would be a self-centered takeaway. It’s just painful to see what I learned and saw reduced to an ugly transcript.

Through writing these updates I’ve been able to reflect in ways that most pass over. The feedback I’ve gotten has stimulated equal introspection on my life abroad and growth as a writer. It felt indulgent at times and still does as I write this. After all, why would anyone care about a middle-class student’s semester abroad?

I’ve never been good at self-reflection, but I know that everything I just described is irreplaceable and would be unfair to discount. Forget transcripts for a while. Go abroad.

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