Preparing yourself for a study abroad trip is kind of like planning a skydiving trip. No matter how many hours you spend researching, practicing and mentally preparing it’s impossible to know what’s coming until you jump. Pitt certainly helped prepare me for certain aspects of the metaphorical jump that is living and working in Madrid, but the massive culture shock is something I’ve continually had to adjust to. Fortunately, through observation, patience, flexibility and an immense amount of help from others I’ve been able to create a sense of comfortability with my life here that increases daily.
First, I’ll give Pitt credit for the parts of my academic experience that did help soften the blow of unfamiliarity that comes with traveling to another country. Six semesters of Spanish courses have helped me hone a language ability that makes me feel more comfortable in my day-to-day life in Madrid. After all, being able to effectively communicate with my host family, coworkers and other people eases the transition into a new environment. A Business Spanish course I took was particularly useful as it helped acquaint me with some of the terms I encounter at work. My core coursework in the computer engineering department also helped prepare me for the internship portion of my study abroad experience. Coming in with a base knowledge of certain software tools made work easier and less difficult to adjust to. Finally, the pre-departure orientation materials (several in-person meetings about expectations and a helpful guidebook) gave me at least a general overview of what to expect culturally from the Spanish people I interact with constantly. By providing the resources to develop my Spanish language abilities, computer engineering skills, and knowledge of local culture, Pitt did help me feel ready to spend a few months working in Madrid. However, at each level this preparation was not without its limitations.
While my Spanish speaking, computer abilities and cultural know-how have all been developed during my undergraduate career so far, at the time of my arrival and Madrid none of them were at an ideal level. While I was confident in my Spanish, my technical vocabulary on the job was quickly revealed to be somewhat lacking because, while there is a Business Spanish class, there is no specific “Computer Spanish”. Similarly, the Spanish I learned at Pitt was largely tailored to the Latin American style of speaking and therefore some parts of Spanish in Spain itself (the vosotros form in verb conjugation, certain slang terms, etc) proved to be a bit of a hurdle. My computer skills also lacked a certain breadth, as my major classes so far have not included much in terms of network monitoring. The cultural knowledge I acquired pre-departure was also a bit of an incomplete picture, as it’s impossible to capture all the minutiae of a culture without experiencing it for yourself. The good news is that, coming into the program, I was aware that my preparation for the trip would merely mitigate adversity rather than eliminate it entirely. Therefore, I landed in Spain with the open mindset required to constantly adjust towards feeling comfortable abroad.
An open mind is by far the biggest tool in my arsenal when it comes to addressing the gap between my expectations and the reality of living in Madrid. Both socially and professionally I have to be constantly alert and ready to learn new things, as my pre-existing perceptions are often incomplete or incorrect entirely. Hand in hand with this open mindedness comes the need for confidence and communication. The best way to resolve discrepancies between what my thoughts and the truth is asking the people who have lived and worked here for years. By entering every day with a learner’s mindset and a willingness to ask questions, I have been able to constantly improve my understanding of what it’s like to live in Madrid and fill in the gaps that were left by my pre-departure preparation at Pitt.
To be fair, I don’t think there’s a whole lot Pitt, or any other university or institution for that matter, could’ve done to prepare me for this experience. That’s the beauty of something like study abroad: that it’s unlike anything you can experience through your normal coursework at college. Sure, you can take classes about foreign language, use major coursework to develop workplace skills or even talk to professors and students about the cultural differences to better anticipate them. But there’s a massive difference between what can be learned theoretically through any given conversation, lecture, homework assignment or exam and what can be learned practically by going to another country, experiencing another culture and living, in many ways, a completely new and unfamiliar life. Fortunately, through communication, observation and a willingness to step out of my comfort zone I have been able to adjust accordingly. So, did I feel prepared for this program because of my experiences at Pitt? Absolutely not. And that’s exactly why my participation in this program has been so worthwhile.