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What I Learned About Myself and the World after Studying Abroad

By Laila, a senior at MHS

Last year I had the most amazing experience of my life: I was part of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program and spent my entire junior year abroad in Spain!

Deciding to go away for a whole year was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, but it certainly was the greatest. Studying abroad was an eye-opener for me. It made me view things from different perspectives and appreciate more of the little things in life.

It also taught me to have more respect for cultural differences. Some of these differences include greetings. In the United States, when we greet someone, we only give handshakes, a wave, or a hug. In Spain, no matter who it is, they always greet with two kisses on each cheek.

I also made many friendships with Spaniards and other exchange students. I know these relationships will last because these people were side by side with me every day. Life abroad was a mental and emotional challenge, but I faced obstacles and overcame them.

I am so grateful to Milton Hershey School for allowing me the wonderful opportunity to travel abroad and to Rotary for all they did while I was there. My life in Spain was the greatest year of my life, and it was more than I could have ever imagined.

The experience shaped me to be the independent, confident, adaptable, and mature person I am today.

Laila holding an American flag

Want to learn more about my study abroad experience and fun facts about Spain’s culture? Read excerpts from newspaper articles I wrote during my time abroad:

  • “Here in Spain, people eat a lot! My breakfast consists of only milk or orange juice, and if there’s anything else, it’s not much at all. Then I go to school from 8:30-2:20. I have 10 classes but only six per day for about 50-55 minutes. I have two 20-minute breaks throughout the day. During these breaks, we have a sandwich or another snack because lunch hour in Spain isn’t until around 3 p.m. As soon as I get home, we have a huge meal for lunch. It usually consists of two plates of various foods, which is always served with bread, tomatoes, oil, and olives. After lunch, I sleep for an hour or so during the “siesta”—I’ve truly grown to love siestas! Around 6 p.m., we have a very small snack or fruit because dinner time in Spain is sometime between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.”
  • “In Spain, not everyone speaks Spanish. First, they call their Spanish “Castellano” because it’s the original Spanish. The other main language in Spain includes Vasc (Basque), which I learned how to say bye, “Agur.” There’s also Catalan, which is a mix between Spanish and French.”
  • “The 29th of January is “El día de la Paz” (day of peace) here in Spain. I gave a public speech in Huesca, a city an hour from where I live, about my opinion of world peace. My speech was about how Rotary has helped me realize that the world is more alike than it is different. I couldn’t have been more proud of myself. People came up to me afterwards saying I spoke well and it was a good speech.”
  • “I finally got to make s’mores! S’mores don’t exist here in Spain, and I was describing them to my friends. They thought they were going to taste gross, but they ended up liking them! I also made dinner for my host family: butterfly bay shrimp, a dish I usually make back home with my mom in the Pittsburgh area. The dinner ingredients included barbeque sauce, which my host family had never tried before. With my dinner, I wanted to make a pretzel and strawberry dessert for them, too. I found out just how rare pretzels are here. I had to buy one of those mixed boxes that have pretzels, chips and crackers. But they all loved the dinner!”
  • “I’ve done lots of other activities with my host family including a three-hour hike up Peña Oroel, which is a mountain here in Jaca for hiking. It has a cross at the top. My host brother and I went go-carting one day, and I finally had time to go skiing in the Pyrenees. The view from the top is breathtaking! On February 6th in Spain, they have a carnival where they dress up like we do for Halloween. One of my exchange student friends invited me to come to her city in Vitoria—we’ll be going as firefighters. I also went to an official soccer game in Barcelona against FC Barcelona and Real Betis Balompié. It was quite an experience because Spain is all about soccer and FC Barcelona is one of the best teams.”
  • “One thing that Rotary does to help us gain a better cultural understanding is have us change houses and live with another family. So, I have officially changed houses. I didn’t move far. I go to the same school, and I’m just a few blocks away from my old house.”
  • “My time here in Spain is officially coming to a close. This past week, I had the most amazing opportunity to travel across Europe including cities like Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague. I traveled with over 60 other exchange students from Spain to see the culture, learn the history, and taste the food in each place. I found that one of my friend’s mom is actually a graduate from Milton Hershey School!”

Life abroad was an eye opener for me

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