As she shares her top 5 photos from the Student Exchange Program, Michaela Santalucia reflects on her time abroad for a semester in Madrid, Spain. As a first time international traveler, she also shared her insights and benefits of taking the leap of faith to study abroad.
In order to highlight my experiences in a more fun way, I decided to do a little photo journal of my favorite photos, and reflect on the experience I had and where I was!
This photo of me was taken at the Real Jardín Botánico in the heart of Madrid. Some other exchange students and I happened upon the Botanical Gardens between lunch at one of our favorite places (Tinto y Tapas) and a trip to the museums in Madrid. Since the botanical gardens are so large (8 hectares!!), we never made it to the museum but we did see 3 very friendly cats, thousands of plants, and a cool art exhibit! Although this seems like a photo that could be taken anywhere in the world, this experience was extremely important to me because I felt like a true Madrileño (a native inhabitant of Madrid), because I found something completely by myself without advising a travel site and enjoyed my day without regard to time (in true Spanish fashion). This experience was a true turning point of my trip because I realized that I was no longer a tourist and was actually living in Madrid.
This photo was taken of me in Morocco! Only a 10 hour bus ride and a one hour ferry ride away from Madrid, this trip was one of my favorites because the culture was incredibly different than anywhere I had seen in Europe or North America, the food was incredible, Morocco had my favorite architecture, and the company I traveled with was extremely punctual and handled the incoming hurricane well and got us all out safely.
During this trip, I was lucky enough to visit three separate cities, get tours (by locals) in all of them, and stayed in a nice hotel. It was incredibly cool to visit a predominantly Muslim country and see how Morocco has been influenced by French influence. Most places I have visited in Europe or the U.S. do not operate under an incredibly religious government, and generally, Muslims are a minority in the places I have visited. Being exposed to a new style of government, a new way of life and a completely different architectural style had a big impact on my opinions of the area. Although I did not pick up any Arabic, I felt like I learned a little bit more about the world.
I took this photo in a small town about an hour train ride outside of Madrid called Siguenza (which conveniently shares the name of my favorite Spanish bottled water brand). My Professor mentioned that it was an incredible town with rich history, so I Googled it and convinced all my friends to go on a day trip with me that weekend! It just happened that weekend there was a special medieval-themed train you could take to the city to get the “full experience”.
On the train there were magicians, jugglers, and performers all presenting themselves in a traditional medieval fashion as they performed in the various train cars. Upon arriving in the city we were given a guided tour of the city (included in the ticket price), and on that tour, I found this adorable staircase. After the tour, we were free to wander around the city, get lunch, and meet back up later for an optional paid cathedral tour. This experience was one of my favorites because it was cheap, could be done in one day, and how often do you get to enjoy medieval magic shows as a college student? Never.
The university I attended in Madrid, Universidad Pontificia Comillas (Comillas Pontifical University) was a Jesuit school located in the heart of the city. It has been a longstanding institute of Spain but actually got its origins as a seminary in Comillas, a city in northern Spain. Due to its deep history, Comillas offered a trip to its exchange students to see the original university in the city Comillas!
This photo is taken from one of the corridors of the building looking out towards the courtyard and the main atrium/church. It was interesting to learn about why/when the university moved to Madrid and what it is used for today (another university purchased it after being abandoned for many years). This experience gave me a broader scope to how old some European institutions are compared to OSU.
Last, but not least, the experience that destroyed my rainboots, but was somehow the most peaceful I had ever felt while traveling. This photo was taken at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. We did a day trip from Dublin to here one day (left around 6 a.m. via bus with a tour group and returned around 9 p.m.). I still don’t know what it was about this specific place that felt different from all the others, but I can’t put my finger on it.
Something about looking off the cliffs into the ocean was calming and also incredibly scary and filled me with adrenaline. At times the walking/hiking path was small and covered in rocks, puddles, and mud pits (which is why my boots did not make it back to the states with me). After three hours of walking the path, we had to get on the bus to return to Dublin, but I probably could have stayed there forever. Looking back, I could have just been really refreshed from being able to speak English again, but I like to think the cliffs are magical.
Every part of my experience abroad changed me for the better, and now that I have returned to the states I am starting to see those changes in myself. For example, I recently noticed that I adopted the more relaxed Spanish approach to being early/on-time to events. Before going abroad, I was 20 minutes early to almost everything, but now I am more relaxed and prioritize what situations I need to be early in, and show up on time to the rest of my commitments. Before I went abroad, people would always ask me why I was going abroad/how I picked Madrid and I never had a solid answer, but looking back I now know what my ultimate goal of the experience was and that I achieved it.
My major goal of going abroad was getting a deeper understanding of myself and becoming more independent. Since my hometown is only an hour away from OSU, I always felt like if the opportunity arose to live/work in another area of the country, I would be too afraid to take the plunge. Going abroad as the only OSU student at my institution helped me to conquer these fears. Not only am I confident that I can keep myself alive (remembering to eat and other basic things), I can travel and manage myself independently. I funded my entire experience abroad by myself through scholarships and financial aid, made friends and connections in the country by always networking and attending social events, and learned a lot about myself because I was not influenced by anyone who knew me before. Oftentimes, you become who people tell you you are (you grow up around your parents and are influenced by their opinions on your character for example) but being abroad releases you from that. I was able to see who I was in an entirely new environment filled with new people and an opportunity to recreate myself if I so chose.
This trip allowed me to realize that when/if the time comes I will be able to take the plunge and move away from everything I’ve ever known. However, the trip helped me affirm my decision that Columbus is the place for me for a few years after graduation, and that has lifted a major weight off of my shoulders.
For anyone considering going abroad, my advice is always to go and for as long as your life plan allows (a week, a month, or even a year)! However, I understand that it is a major financial burden. My advice is to start early, pick a city that is within your budget, and apply for every single scholarship possible. Doing these things will ensure that you maintain your intended graduation date, do not undergo a huge amount of debt to fund your global experience, and it will prevent problems down the road such as Visa delays, expensive flights, etc. Going abroad seems daunting, but during my trip I kept reminding myself “If other students can do it, I can too” and reminding myself of that got me through the semester.