Opinion: exchanges are humbling and amazing


Abby Givens, left, with her exchange sister, Laura. Abby is half way through her exchange at Casvi School near Madrid.

Abby Givens

On December 27, I flew to Madrid, Spain. That was my first international flight without my parents, and more importantly, I would not return for six weeks.

Flash forward a few weeks and here I am sitting at the dining room table with this family I met just weeks earlier, who do not speak my native language, in a country where I have never been before. Virtually all of my experiences are new and exciting, as well as challenging. Talking with my family, going to school, watching TV…everything is in Spanish. That is difficult. Interactions I took for granted before, I now find challenging.

The “American girls,” as Lillian Prime, Sophia Jeter, Natalie Fah and I have become referred to, recently visited Madrid a las Austrias. That area includes the old royal palace with a beautiful garden, and some of the major streets and squares of central Madrid. Once 2 o’clock rolled around we made our way to Mercado de San Miguel, which is an old marketplace that serves tapas, fruit, pastries, sandwiches and more.

While standing in line, I heard tourists address those working in the stalls in English. They expected people who live in a different country with a different national language to know English. I understand English is very widely used across the globe, yet I find it more polite for people to at least attempt to order that flan in Spanish.

Realizing this made me feel proud, and slightly less embarrassed, to use my Spanish to ask the vendor which apple he thought best or another what was inside that pastry, and most importantly that I do this despite my lack of confidence in my Spanish skills.

I know that to a Spanish speaker, I must sound heavily accented, very choppy, and often times simply incorrect, yet I speak anyway. This is partially because I have to. I am in Spain living in a home with people who know little to no English, so to be able to communicate I have no choice but to try. I also speak Spanish because that is the only way I am going to improve.

The value is monumental in this, in exchanges, where you are forced to get used to and accept that you are going to mess up more often than not.

It is easy to become focused on performing well and trying to avoid experiences where embarrassment and failure are involved, yet becoming ok with making a ton of mistakes is a good skill to practice. It is a skill I am practicing every day.

In addition to growth in this way, an exchange allows you to immerse yourself and learn about a different culture. Staying with a family allows you to learn about their family traditions and them as people as well as to eat at their favorite restaurants or with their extended family over a beloved family meal. These experiences are priceless.

Despite the inevitability of stress and confusion, what I have experienced so far with exchanges, being slightly over half way through my time here in Spain, is incredible. I have grown in my understanding of myself, improved my second language skills, made friends and a second family, eaten delicious food that I have never had before, visited places I had never even heard of, had the pleasure to look at beautiful buildings, and so much more.

From my personal experience with this exchange so far, I would wholeheartedly recommend going on an exchange to anyone who is given the opportunity.

Learn more about opportunities to study abroad at Annie Wright.