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Jumping Straight into the Deep End: Taking Classes Outside My Major and in My Second Language

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Prioritizing My Spanish Minor

As a biology major in a science-intensive program with a Spanish minor on the side, I knew it was going to be difficult to find a study abroad program where I could pursue courses in both Spanish and bio. While there are certainly some incredible study abroad programs centered on biology, I couldn’t (understandably) find any that also focused on developing fluency in Spanish. And as much as I love biology, my main goal when it came to studying abroad was improving my Spanish. Additionally, I was most interested in the culture of Spanish-speaking countries after learning about different aspects of Spanish and Latin American culture throughout my middle school and high school Spanish classes. With that possibility off the table, I played with the possibility of attending a local university in a Spanish-speaking country through a Spanish-focused program and trying to enroll in STEM classes there. But that didn’t seem to be the right move either—first, I knew my vocabulary was particularly weak in those areas, and second, Northwestern is already very strict about transferring credit. So even if I struggled through learning all the names of the organelles in Spanish, I probably wouldn’t end up any farther along in completing my major. I needed a different strategy. I started toying around with my schedule at the end of my freshman year, looking at all the different ways I could complete the requirements for my biology major and Spanish minor. I realized that if I arranged things just right, in my junior year, I could take fall quarter (Northwestern is on the quarter/trimester system) off of STEM classes and simply focus on fulfilling my Spanish minor credits and a gen-ed requirement. I had found a perfect pocket of time to study abroad! After meeting with the study abroad office to double check how many minor requirements I could transfer, it was time to choose a location. That’s a story for another time, but I couldn’t be happier I decided on Mérida, Mexico.

Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire

I was very proud of myself for finding what seemed to be the perfect solution. I wouldn’t get behind at all in completing my STEM major, and I would be able to immerse myself in Mexican culture while focusing on developing my Spanish skills. But when it got to the point in the preparation process where I started to plan out a potential schedule and research the classes available at UADY, the host university where I took three of my five classes, the situation  really hit me. For the first time in years, I wasn’t going to be taking any STEM classes at all. Instead, I was signing up for a semester full of college-level humanities classes. In Spanish. The only college level humanities classes I had taken were two freshman seminars. I realized I couldn’t have thrown myself farther outside of my comfort zone if I tried.

Spoiler Alert: It Was an Amazing Decision

As much as I live, breathe, and love science, I have always found the humanities fascinating, and there was no shortage of interesting classes offered at UADY. In fact, as I tried out the different courses available in my first couple of days in Mérida, I got more and more excited. (In the Mérida Universities Program, before you register, you have a week to sit in on any class you might be interested in taking.) It was so freeing and refreshing to have the ability to pick classes that I was truly interested in, and to know I was going to explore topics that I never would have had the chance to at Northwestern. Since my main goal was finding classes to improve my Spanish, while I did try to find a literature and history class, I had very loose constraints on the classes I could take. I ended up taking Racism in Mexico, Literature of the Twenty-First Century, and History of Mexico-US Relations. I was still a little nervous at the thought of so much reading and writing in my second language, but as I got accustomed to my courses and settled into a routine, I did find myself really enjoying all of my classes. And as I spent more time speaking Spanish on a regular basis, both in school and at home with my host family, I also felt more and more comfortable in my classes. Yes, I was working harder than the local students in the class, and probably a good bit harder than your average study abroad student, but I loved the content. And not having weekly problem sets and a constant stream of exams to study for was certainly a welcome change.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

One of the classes I ended up taking was a literature course for juniors in the literature major. I loved the class, but I felt that my background knowledge was somewhat lacking with respect to my peers.’ So, when the time came to start working on my final presentation and essay, I reached out to the IFSA Resident Director, and she set me up with a student who had recently graduated from the same university and had studied literature. I went to talk through my ideas for the essay and presentation with him, and he was so great about helping me understand and add a little bit of background on literature theory, that I had not gbeen introduced to as a STEM major. With that boost of help, I was able to get to a level comparable to my classmates and produce an essay and presentation I could feel proud of.

Would Recommend!

It might seem daunting to take an entire quarter/trimester/semester away from your major, but I had a truly incredible experience and saw a vast improvement in my ability to read, write, speak, and listen in Spanish. I came back from Mexico with a whole list of Latin American literature recommendations that I’m already several books into and still going strong. Taking humanities classes also added another entire layer of understanding of the culture that I would have never seen if I had buried myself in STEM. I will say that my math was a little rusty when I got back this winter, but after I few weeks I was right back into the swing of things. To any Spanish minors out there, I would highly recommend just taking the time to focus on your Spanish and a topic you enjoy and let yourself stop worrying about your major for a bit of time. After all, studying abroad is all about getting out of your comfort zone, so why not take one more step? Julia Dierksheide is a biology student at Northwestern University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Mérida Universities program in Mérida, Mexico in Fall 2018.