Off-Campus Study: Amber May '19
After wrestling my carry-on into the overhead compartment, I sat down in my appropriately located seat - the left window seat, at the very back of the plane. Feeling anxious, alone, and ant-sized, I curled up in a ball as much as I could to hide my nerves. As I stared out the window, eyes locked on the air traffic controller to ground myself in reality, an older couple sat down next to me and started speaking to each other in Spanish. We exchanged hellos, and from listening to bits of their conversation it seemed like they were experienced travelers. I thought I should try to make conversation with them to get my mind off the fact that we were about to fly across the country in a 400 ton piece of metal, but my lack of confidence glued my mouth shut. I wanted to tell them all about my plans to leave my country for three months and study in Bolivia, to live with a family there who spoke only Spanish, and maybe to get some advice about flying since this was quite a doozy of a first flight. I was confident that this couple would be receptive to my efforts to communicate, and I knew it would help me more to practice my Spanish than read my "Bolivia 101" book, but I hid behind the pages anyway. As we took off, a wave of adrenaline washed over me and I froze, but it was followed by an indescribable sense of serenity. Once we conquered our ascent, it felt as if the plane was just suspended in the atmosphere. I think the same was true for me; once I conquered the transitionary phase of my journey by saying goodbye to my family and my comfort zone, I was suspended in the awe and excitement of starting a new life. By the time I returned to Miami in December, I felt as experienced as the couple I met on my very first flight.
This was only the first formative experience of my semester abroad in Bolivia. The trip itself was extremely intimidating since it was my first time traveling outside of the US, and in the days leading up to August 21st I was almost ready to back out and remain in the comfort of another semester at F&M. I overcame that fear among many others, like living with several host families, navigating a foreign city alone, and stumbling through Spanish conversations with native speakers. That's not to say that these experiences were surprisingly easy which made them a breeze to overcome. In fact, the exact opposite was true - the more difficult a situation was, the more I learned from it. My background in psychology helped me through these situations much more than I had anticipated, as I thought back on lessons about stress and its importance to development. I adopted a motto that encapsulated this idea and carried it with me through the semester: You can't grow in your comfort zone.
While my semester in Bolivia did challenge me as an individual, it was filled with amazing experiences that showed me the beauty of the country and its culture. Some highlights were a four hour bus ride through the Andes, a long weekend in La Paz, an 11km hike through part of the Amazon's cloud forest, and a high school indigenous dance competition. However, none of those compared to some of the simplest things I did with my host family in Cochabamba, where I spent the majority of my semester. Bolivians value family so much more than Americans do, in my experience, and I cannot express my gratitude for being welcomed into Luis and Carla's home. They truly made me feel like a part of the family, which made my experience more memorable and manageable. I remember using baking with my host mom and grandmother as a way to share our cultures with one another; one day we made alfajores and another we made whoopie pies. During the last few days of my program we stayed in a hotel, but as I walked back home to say goodbye on the last day I had to fight back tears. The streets of the normally bustling city were completely empty for Election Day, during which there is a transportation ban, and I walked down my normal route in silence. My somber state was amplified by the atmosphere, and when I walked in the door of my home and saw that my family had prepared a barbecue for me, you can probably guess that I cried for longer than I'd like to admit. It was the culmination of three months of varied emotions and experiences that I will always appreciate and never forget. My time in Bolivia had truly come to an end, but the imprint it left on me never will.
Amber May '19
Term Abroad: Fall 2017
Weis College House
Major: Moral Psychology
Campus Affiliations: Off-Campus Study Ambassador, President of Active Minds
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