“Was it worth it?”
Was it worth the 10 months, 6151 miles from home, two different host countries, and a new language? The question still rings through my brain as I finish up my second semester of IFSA exchange in Merida, Mexico.
Was it worth leaving behind my home college with my friends and community that I worked so hard to build, and trade it in for a world of unknowns? I was trading in my known world to a world that I knew so little about in regard to culture, politics and climate. I remember the moment of pure panic when I stepped out into the Santiago, Chile airport alone. The anxiety is similar to the first day of freshman orientation of college, except with the added pressure of language barrier.
Now, I was right about a few things in my pre-trip anxiety. My time abroad would be seriously uncomfortable as I wandered outside my comfort zone and expanded my horizons. What I was wrong about, however, was that I would be doing it alone. I did not anticipate the friendliness from both my Chilean and Mexican classmates, the flexibility of my professors, and the depth of the friendships I would make.
That is not to say my academic year abroad did not come without its challenges. The majority of my first semester in Valparaiso, Chile was focused on trying to gain a better understanding and control over my Spanish, with the help of my host family and spanish-speaker friends. I experienced embarrassing moments in my Chilean theater class, where my professor often poked fun at me for my English accented Spanish during our improv exercises. It is hard to believe that some months later I would be writing a ten-page skit in Spanish and instead of poking fun, my professor would be complimenting me on both my language and acting growth.
I also would like to speak to the experience of being a gringa in a classroom full of local students. Here in the states, a gringa in Latinx communities are considered Americans from European ancestry. Both in Chile and Mexico a gringa is anyone regardless of ancestry who is born in the United States.
In both Valparaíso and Mérida, I was approached within the first week of classes and adopted by a friend group and they helped me through the semester course. This was more present on the smaller campus at Universidad Modelo in Mérida, Mexico, but locals are just as interested in making international friends as study-abroad students, so don’t be shy! It is so helpful having an ally in class for clarifying homework or test dates as well as restaurant or going out suggestions.
And finally, I treasure the connections that I have made along my journey. For my two host families, who accepted me into their homes with open hearts. As an LGBTQ+ identifying student, I was worried about entering two different environments and their possible reactions to me being queer. This worry was quickly calmed upon the meeting with my hipster Chilean graphic designer parents and psychologist Mexican parents, who never once made me feel I had to hide anything about my identity.
I have made lifelong friends, including adopting my host’s cousins as my adopted “cousins.” All of us are experts in Spanglish. It’s so much fun to be aware of the difference between Spanglish and pure Spanish. It has been a privilege to explore Mérida and the Yucatán Peninsula with my cousins by my side. My host parents know that if I am not at our house, I am most likely at my host grandma’s house with my two primas swimming in the pool or doing homework. They not only make me laugh, but empower me to continue pushing myself out of my comfort zone and on my language journey. Fear is the main factor that keeps people back from practicing a language and I feel my most confident when I am with them.
Long story short, YES, it was definitely worth it! My experience with IFSA was worth every misunderstanding, awkward interaction, and homesick moment. I have grown in a way that I would not have been able to back at my home college and opened my world up just a bit more.
Valparaíso and Mérida were vastly different cities and cultures that I enjoyed every second of thanks to the support and cariño from the people I met along the way. This experience has set me up for a future that I am excited about and cannot wait to get back to campus this fall and share my experiences with my friends.
Lucinda Law is a student at Lewis and Clark College and studied abroad with IFSA at the Mérida Universities Program, Mexico. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.