By Faith Cole
I cannot fully express my gratitude for the opportunity I had to study abroad in Santiago de Compostela, Spain this spring. Though those six weeks flew by more quickly than I could have imagined, I learned much more in that time than I could have in a classroom at home.
Santiago de Compostela is a wonderful town. With a population of 100,000, it was the perfect size to feel safe and be able to comfortably navigate the city (once I deciphered the maze-like streets of Zona Vieja) while still having plenty of concerts, festivals, museums, coffee shops and parks to explore.
One event that I remember particularly fondly as a genuine intercultural experience was attending Letras Galegas, a celebration of, and demonstration in support of Galician language. School was canceled, businesses were closed, and everyone got a day off to flock to Santiago, the capitol of Galicia. Displaying nationalist flags and political banners, the whole town marched through Zona Vieja and gathered in a plaza of the cathedral to hear poems recited, songs were sung, and a speech given, all in Galician. I enjoyed Letras Galegas because being surrounded by a language I haven’t studied reminded me of how much I enjoy learning languages and the passionate expression of Galician identity and nationalist sentiments reminded me of the complexity of cultural and social identities. I believe an awareness of such complexity is necessary to be a leader in the diverse communities I hope to learn, live, and work in.
Reflecting on my experience in Santiago, I would undoubtedly say the most valuable part of the program was living with a host family. I am beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know the wonderful family that I did while living with them in Spain. We had countless interesting conversations during sobremesa that covered subjects ranging from family to music, to politics. After six weeks of unforgettable memories, we tearfully exchanged gifts and hugged goodbye. Without Josefa, Suso, Miguel, María, and their willingness to share so much with me, my time in Santiago would not have been nearly as valuable as it was.
My UM classmates that I traveled with and studied within Santiago were also wonderful. Our group was large with many exciting, interesting people to spend time with. I had countless conversations in Tia Vincenta (our favorite cafebar), along El Camino (the pilgrimage route we studied and hiked a portion of), and in albergues (hostels along El Camino) from which I learned a lot about the life experiences of my fellow study abroad-ers. From these conversations, I learned how important it is to listen. Although we often do, you can never assume to know the reality of someone else’s experiences. From the conversations I had with my diverse, intelligent, inspired classmates I learned the importance of listening. For a leader who hopes to foster a creative, progressive community in which the experiences and skills of their coworkers are used to their full potential, the skill of listening and thereby knowing the limitations of one’s own experiences is necessary.
My entire study abroad experience was an array of lessons and exercises in getting to know a nation, a community, and individuals in all their complexities. I was constantly reminded that there is always more to learn; a humbling fact I hope to keep in mind in every leadership position that I work in.
I have many people to thank for the lessons I learned and the wonderful memories that I now cherish from my time in Spain: my parents, for always encouraging me to broaden my horizons and for fueling my curiosity about the world; my professors at the University of Michigan for helping me improve my Spanish skills and for inspiring a passion for language; the program coordinators in the CGIS office and at the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela for their logistical work behind the scenes; the generous organizations that provided funding making an otherwise extremely costly experience accessible; my wonderful classmates that I now call friends for making the experience one to remember; and, of course, my host family for welcoming me into their home and sharing so much with me. ¡Gracias a todos por las experiencias y los buenos recuerdos!