Studying Abroad in Spain from the Perspective of a Type A Student

February 5, 2014
Studying Abroad in Spain

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Type-A. Perfectionist. Disciplined. Stubborn. A real pain in the butt. How does someone like me, you may ask, do when studying abroad in Spain?

Socially, I’m extroverted, adventurous, boisterous, and I love when things take a turn for the weird. When you take your professional and academic life so seriously, it becomes too much to be strict all of the time. However, I’m the worst person to take on vacations. Relaxing just stresses me out.

I am ambitious. I’m an overachiever.  I collect goals and accomplishments the way some people collect postage stamps or
commemorative glasses. I make to-do lists for my to-do lists. There is so much I want to accomplish and experience. I believe you can have your cake and eat it, too–as long as you meticulously plan each detail and don’t get distracted. Ever.

It’s interesting that the things that lift you up (getting good grades and being a talented athlete) are also the things that can drag you down. If I didn’t have such high expectations, I wouldn’t accomplish nearly as much. If you’re going to invest time in something, you might as well do it perfectly. Anything else is just laziness. I was raised by working-class Baby Boomers. Personal responsibility, accountability, and work ethic are literally encoded into my DNA. But I’m not a robot, and I am far from perfect. Everybody has a breaking point; and when I fall, I crash hard.

This semester, I am studying abroad in Spain at the Universidad de Salamanca. I’ve only been here for one whirlwind week. The only Spanish people I’ve met are the two university students assisting our orientation program, the IES staff, my wonderful señora, and various denizens of Salamancan nightlife. From what I’ve gathered, the Spanish people do not share my take-no-prisoners attitude.

For example, our program director was discussing the Bologna Process, in which various education ministries throughout Europe are condensing and improving their standards for higher education. European universities are adopting a more hands-on approach to higher education in order to make both professors and students more accountable.

“The Spanish system of doing university is much more…independent,” our program director chuckled. “It’s gotten better under the Bologna Process, but professors in Spain don’t always feel accountable for helping students. Oftentimes, they skip out on office hours and sometimes ignore emails…and Spanish students also have a hard time showing up for class.” Indeed, this time of year marks exam period for the university, but that didn’t stop the city’s bars and clubs from being packed with college students until 5 am.

I can’t generalize. Not everyone in the US has the same take-no-prisoners attitude that I have, nor is everyone in Spain as
laid back as I’ve described. There is much diversity in both cultures when it comes to attitudes toward achievement. However, Spain does have a decidedly relaxed attitude.

My señora is fond of saying “no pasa nada.” It literally translates to “nothing is happening.” Loosely, it could mean
anything from “it’s no big deal” to “don’t worry about it.”  Think “hakuna matata” from The Lion King.

This commonly-uttered Spanish phrase sends shivers down my spine. What do you mean there’s nothing to worry about? In my world, there’s always something to worry about, which would roughly translate in Spanish to siempre pasa algo.

Most of my friends traveled abroad this past fall. All semester, they regaled me with tales of magical Italian afternoons and bold London nights. Like any productive college student, I know how to have a good time, but not at the expense of personal accountability. For me, going abroad is about résumé building. I’m taking integrated classes at the university, doing a teaching internship, writing a blog, maintaining my spring hockey workout program, possibly volunteering, and co-authoring a paper with my favorite professor. “I don’t have time for personal growth,” said the crazed student from New Jersey.

What makes me nervous about my semester abroad is a lack of control. I thrive on routine because it means I can divide and conquer everything in small, familiar parts. Since I’ve gotten here, my mind has been racing with everything I need to do, but not with what I want to do. However, “no pasa nada” is about everything but control. As Timon says in The Lion King, “Listen, kid; bad things happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” The productive thing to do would be to build a bridge and get over it (“construir un puente para superarlo”).

You lose control over many aspects of your life when you’re studying abroad. You are at the mercy of a strange and unknown city where the weather is different and people act differently. They eat different foods and have different attitudes.

I am sure that this experience will transform me into someone new.

About Ray Gallagher

Ray Gallagher, a student at Muhlenberg College, studied abroad at the University of Salamanca in Spain.

2 thoughts on “Studying Abroad in Spain from the Perspective of a Type A Student

  1. Hannah
    February 28, 2014

    I was wondering how this aspect was still affecting your time abroad? I am trying to go to France for a year, but I’ve been ‘gently’ warned that I should reconsider because of my high anxiety and perfectionism.

    • Ray
      March 5, 2014

      first of all, I would definitely recommend that perfectionists should study abroad. at first it was torturous, but being pushed out of my comfort zone was something I needed. I will say that after about two weeks, I was able to establish a routine that was similar enough to my life in the US to make me comfortable, but different enough to reinforce the fact that I´m abroad. The great thing about animals and humans is that we can adapt to almost anything!

      That being said, I don´t think that I (personally) could study abroad for a whole year. I am comfortable, settled, and happy in Spain, but I am GREATLY looking forward to things going back to “normal” when I come home in May. One 4-month semester is plenty (for me).

      I would definitely take advantage of studying abroad if I were you, and I have two friends that are doing so for the entire year. If you want to go abroad the whole year, make sure you are committed to it, because 12 months is a looong time to go without having everything be “your way” 100% of the time.

      hope this helps!

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