One of the best things I’ve done in my life was spend a semester studying abroad twenty-five years ago.
I was not the typical student who studied abroad; I had no interest in leaving the safety of the United States and Gettysburg College. It would be inaccurate to say that I ended up studying abroad by accident, though. My study off campus was a necessity and the experience is something for which I am eternally grateful.
Spanish was hard
It would be an understatement to say that I struggled in Spanish while in college. I struggled mightily. My comprehension was poor and grades worse. In fact, a faculty member once told me that my placement exam was among the poorest he’d ever seen. Admittedly, my work to improve in Spanish was lacking and I earned the very poor grades I received. Spanish class (and my lack of effort) landed me on academic probation at the end of my first-year of college and I found myself repeating a course for my sophomore year.
My sophomore year was not much better and I continued to struggle in Spanish. But, there were faculty members at Gettysburg College who didn’t give up on me. Dr. Kerr Thompson and Dr. Miguel Vinuela took an interest in me and did their best to help, support and motivate me. They were patient with me and worked with me to help find a path forward. Simply put, they cared. They knew the same thing that I did; if I couldn’t get Spanish figured out and successfully pass four semesters of Spanish, I would never graduate from Gettysburg.
Have you ever thought about studying in Spain?
Sometime in my sophomore year, Dr. Vinuela took me aside and planted a seed.
He asked me if I’d “ever thought about studying abroad in Spain?” I thought this was pretty amusing, given my challenges in class. But, I had the smarts to ask him, “why.” His honest answer of, “if you don’t, you will never graduate from Gettysburg,” was enough to get my attention. I asked him what I “needed to do?”
While a part of me believes Miguel offered this suggestion because he was getting weary of having me in his classes (I was a repeat offender and had him for class three of four semesters in my first two years), I soon discovered he had my best interest in mind. Miguel worked with me to get everything in order for me to spend the fall of 1990 studying abroad in Sevilla, Spain.
It was an experience that changed me and I am forever grateful.
Thanksgiving in Spain 1990
I find myself reflecting upon those special days, weeks and months in Spain around Thanksgiving each year. I think about this experience around Thanksgiving, in part, because of how grateful I am for the experience, and for Miguel Vinuela, Kerr Thompson and Gettysburg College, but also because 1990 was my first Thanksgiving away from my home in Nebraska and family.
I will never forget the Thanksgiving of 1990 and the wonderful celebration of an American holiday at the Center for Cross Cultural Study in Sevilla. While the names have faded—even those for whom I have photos—the memories have not.
- We had turkey and stuffing.
- We smoked cigars.
- We watched a videotaped American football game, thanks to a family member back home.
- We laughed.
- We spoke English, which was good for me.
- We enjoyed each other.
- And, we treated each other as family since many of us were away for this holiday for the first time ever.
I will be forever grateful for Thanksgiving 1990 in Sevilla, which was a central part of my college experience and opened my mind to new ideas, place and people; involved faculty who encouraged and motivated me; and, friends who treated me like family.
And, I am increasingly aware that the experience would have never been possible without family that supported me; for that I am forever grateful.
Giving thanks still
In many ways I have come to realize that the experience of studying away in 1990 shaped what I do today and what I wish for others.
The fall of 1990 was a defining experience, which has guided my work in higher education to this day. I hope every student I have the opportunity to work with will encounter faculty members who will take a chance on them and push them to take an uncomfortable risk to grow; they will be grateful.
W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission