How Study Abroad Changed My Life

My year abroad in Spain was supposed to be the big adventure of my life. After that, I planned to settle down in my comfort zone: Seattle, Washington, USA. Home is where the heart is. That was home. That’s where I planned to stay.

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How could I have known that a year abroad would lead me to a life in Spain with my Spanish husband? And no, we did not meet in Spain. But yes, after my year abroad, my radar was tuned to all-things-Spanish. That is how I met Isabel from Spain in…Seattle! It was she who insisted that I meet the shy, unassuming guy who would become my best partner ever.

couple holding hands with map of spain in front of them

But even before I left Spain to go home, I could feel that my year abroad had transformed my life. Forever! Here are just a few examples...

Cultural Awareness


I landed in Madrid at the end of August. It was scorching hot and dry. As I wandered the streets, checking museums and monuments off my list, there was one word on my mind: different. Everything was different! I was excited to explore every facet of my new and different culture. Study abroad sparked my cultural curiosity. Now, 30 years later, I continue to expand my cultural awareness in Spain and beyond!

Language Skills

Spanish flag and blackboard that says Learn Spanish

Learning Spanish did not just teach me how to say things. It taught me how to see differently. For example, every time I opened my mouth to speak, I had to see the other person as either above, below or at my level. That’s because Spanish verbs have two forms: formal (for teachers, bosses, doctors etc.) and informal (for family, friends etc.). I resisted this way of seeing for a long time, but eventually, I realized it was not better or worse – just different.

Intercultural Competence

girl raises fists triumphantly and happily with Spanish flag behind

My biggest problem at first, was breakfast. It was so small, just a café con leche (coffee with milk) and a tiny, lemon-flavored muffin. How could I survive on that? At first, I snuck a few extra muffins and my host mamá quickly responded by rationing the muffins: one per child per morning. Uff! Then, we talked. I struggled to explain my problem and understand host mom's instructions. She taught me how to start with the tiny breakfast at home and then savor a heartier, mid-morning snack like everyone else. And it worked! Living abroad is all about building intercultural competence: nurturing the knowledge, skills and attitudes we need to survive and thrive in another culture.

Adaptability and Resilience

girl raises hands triumphantly at top of mountain

I was in shock. My new history professor expected us to read hundreds of pages and memorize a myriad of facts in record time for a final exam that would determine our entire grade. Seriously? Unrealistic! Inhumane! Ineffective! I was vehemently opposed. And I lost the battle, even though I somehow passed the exam (and no, I did not cheat). Little by little, I adapted to new ways of learning. I became stronger, calmer, less reactive, more curious and open-minded. Living and studying abroad is all about learning to adapt to customs, beliefs and lifestyles that make no sense at first. Then, little by little, one challenge at a time, both adaptability and resilience grow. Today I continue to seek out surprising cultural differences that turn my world upside down and teach me new lessons.


sign says Yes I Can with magnifying glass over I Can

Study abroad took my level of independence to dizzying new heights. Who forgot to book a hotel for the day I landed in Madrid? Oops! How fortunate that I met another exchange student to share a room with while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Who was separated from the group and got lost in Segovia? Umm...How fortunate the local police officers were so patient and kind (and had such a good sense of humor). Little by little I learned to exercise my proactivity  (grow up) as I organized weekend trips, budgeted my money, interacted with my Spanish tribe...and negotiated my way through my academic program. All. By. Myself.


large family eating big meal together around a wooden table

Beyond independence, I learned Mediterranean-style interdependence from my host family. It's about more than sitting down to enjoy regular meals together, it's a way of keeping an eye on each other, looking for ways to make each person feel special and supported. Little host sister was my “living Spanish dictionary” as I studied. Older host sister dutifully took me along with her friends until I had my own. And host mom was always hovering in the background in a subtle, surveillance-mode, ready to take me under her wings for a hug if I seemed homesick, patiently nurture my Spanish skills, lend a listening ear or offer keen advice. Far from stifling, it felt snug and warm and caring and it still influences me today as the mother of four adult daughters (who just happen to be Spanish).

Global Perspective

two male hands holding globe map ball

As I studied international relations from a Spanish perspective, my world map came to life. Suddenly, Spain seemed like a parent figure to many countries across Latin America, and their revolutions looked a bit like teen rebellion and the independence of adulthood. And the way Spanish people talked about the French, the Germans, the British and other Europeans? They sounded to me just like the typical mixed emotions of family relationships with siblings and cousins, bickering, then snickering, then hugging and sharing, then bickering and snickering again. My year abroad sparked an interest in international relations and global issues that continues to this day.

Interpersonal Skills

three women of different ethnic backgrounds smiling together

Living with Spanish families, studying under Spanish professors, interacting with Spanish civil servants, I learned how to adapt my interpersonal skills to the demands of a very different culture. How could I truly fit into my new family? How could I get good grades? How could I extend my student visa? How could I make Spanish friends or get a part-time job? Every day was a chance to practice and hone my intercultural people skills. I took on the challenge with mucho gusto. And today, I continue seeking opportunities to interact with people from all over the world, including friends from France, China and Sri Lanka.

Personal Identity

young woman with chin on hand in thinking pose

“I had an eye transplant in Spain.” At least that is how I felt once I returned home. Everything looked different, even – especially – myself. Who was I now? Where did I fit in now? Before I lived abroad, I had been a mono-cultural, now I felt bicultural. As I headed back to my alma mater to finish my degree, something was lacking. I started to seek out students from other countries. After college, I became a community college instructor for adult immigrants and refugees from around the world. My new, global identity craved international, intercultural experiences to thrive.

Career Opportunities

sign says work abroad with office supplies scattered around

Not everyone who studies abroad ends up working abroad like I have. Regardless of where I work, study abroad sparked my interest in culture shock - the stress we experience when we adapt to a different culture. Whether working as a community college instructor, journalist or corporate trainer or working with exchange students, cultural competence has always been my theme. I love helping others learn to first survive and then thrive as they live, study and work multiculturally.

Lifelong Memories

young woman thinking with images of Seville in background

My favorite memory from my year abroad? Walking home from the University of Seville on weekdays, winding through cobblestone streets past stacks of brightly painted ceramic pots and plates and cups. I was always ravenously ready for lunch. My host mom would be buzzing around the kitchen. I could smell the garbanzos with garlic and cumin for the first course. I could see the fresh fish waiting to sizzle on the grill. There would be a fresh green salad and fruit for dessert. Host mom and sister and I would laugh and talk as we sat around the tiny table with the red and white checkered cloth and ate together. And then the siesta, the afternoon movie, time to study and then…back to the table for dinner.


next with a heart that says home is where the heart is

I thought study abroad would be my Big Adventure. Instead, study abroad launched me into a life of adventure: every single day. Seriously! After thirty years in Spain, I still feel that sense of adventure when I leave my car on the edge of Málaga city and trek into a labyrinth of shiny, tiled pedestrian streets, shopping for my favorite jasmine tea and the freshest oranges, dates and lettuce, stopping by Zara (Made in Spain, by the way) to check out the latest fashions and maybe swinging by the ruins of the Roman theater and the Moorish fortress on the hill. Home is where the heart is, and now, this is my home, my adventurous home.

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