Balancing Unfamiliarity & Familiarity While Living Abroad

Guest Post By: Michelle Ly, a Junior studying Operations and Supply Chain Management. She is a Global Business Center Study Abroad Scholarship Recipient, and she studied abroad through ABLA Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain, during Autumn Quarter 2022.

My time abroad in Barcelona with ALBA was defined by so many first experiences and I would not have wanted it any other way. Before Fall 2022, I had never traveled internationally. On top of that, my first year was entirely online. I then continued into sophomore year as a commuter student. I applied to study abroad not knowing anyone and understanding it would be a massive adjustment having never lived away from home; but it was a challenge I was more than eager for. 

I was welcomed to my first week in Barcelona by La Mercè. This festival, originally held in honor of the patron saint la Mercè, nowadays also celebrates the end of summer transitioning into fall and Barcelona itself. Just within a few days of landing, I truly felt how lively the culture is. Streets were packed with people coming together to watch Catalonian traditions such as the castellers (human towers) and correfoc (fire run). There were so many other events spread throughout Barcelona too. One of my favorites was attending a concert right on the beach. Since I lived in the Gothic Quarter, all this energy was a mere 10-20 minute walk or metro ride away. 

Despite being in a new country, living with roommates who I didn’t meet until arriving at my apartment, speaking a language I had neglected after graduating high school, and so many other changes happening to me all at once– I still found routine amidst the exciting chaos. I knew going into study abroad that a quarter was more than enough time to explore. So, I established some norms early on to help Barcelona feel like home. I bought groceries every Monday from the same store; I cooked Vietnamese food for myself during the weekdays; I returned to my apartment after class by 11:30 am to refresh. Having these few key things in my schedule helped me embrace study abroad even more since I wasn’t overwhelmed by so much newness.  

The excitement of being abroad came from knowing each day had potential to be entirely different (while still being able to maintain my routines). I always looked forward to making plans with friends or going on ALBA’s excursions. However, times where I navigated through the city independently, made the minor successes feel big. Small victories that will stick with me include: picking out a reusable bag from a saleswoman entirely in Spanish, finding new metro lines to travel on even after GoogleMaps pointed me in the wrong direction, and working up the courage to ask a stranger to take a photo for me. So, one big piece of advice I have for anyone studying abroad would be to learn how to enjoy your own company! Exploring Barcelona by myself, especially in touristy areas when I’m surrounded by groups of people who came together, immensely pushed my confidence. Schedules with other people may not align and your time abroad is still limited. Don’t feel like you have to wait on anyone else to do something you want. For instance, I visited La Sagrada Familia solo and I’m so happy I did. Doing so gave me the time to take in Gaudi’s intricate architecture at my own pace. Especially in cohort-based study abroad programs where you’re constantly seeing the same people, I think it’s a nice switch to visit places alone every once in a while. 

My study abroad experience has further confirmed my desire to see more of the world. However, I now realize the excitement I possess to explore shouldn’t have to wait for official travel plans. Barcelona taught me that living in a place doesn’t mean I should ever stop learning about it. Throughout my 10 weeks there, I continued to find new places to explore even after checking off all the main attractions. I plan to carry this same energy after returning to Seattle and making even the most average days more exciting.