Name: Ericka Bloch
Major: Spanish and Communication (Public Relations and Mass Media emphasis)
Year in School: Senior
Program: NSE to Cayey, Puerto Rico Spring 2015
Why did you choose to study abroad?
There were many reasons that I wanted to study abroad, but my main reason was to immerse myself in the language. It has always been a goal of mine to become fluent in Spanish, but simply attempting to learn the language here wasn’t giving me the results that I wanted. I knew a few people that had studied abroad in Spanish-speaking countries—one of which was my cousin—and they came back practically fluent in Spanish. Because I wasn’t really learning at the rate that I wanted to—partly because I was too afraid to speak and make mistakes—I wanted to force myself to be surrounded by the language.
The house we stayed in on campus. It used to be an old military base.
Why did you choose to go where you did?
I had actually known where I wanted to study abroad since 6th grade. Throughout middle school and high school Spanish, we always had to do projects on Spanish-speaking countries and I usually chose to do mine on Puerto Rico. This was partly because we never really learned about it in our classes, but also because my dad had actually been stationed there for a few months while he was in the Marines. Honesty though, the real reason I became fixated with studying in Puerto Rico were the bioluminescent bays. The pictures that I saw online were enchanting, and I wanted to experience that in real life. The reason that I chose Cayey specifically, was because it reminded me a lot of Green Bay. The campus was small, and had trees and mountains surrounding it. It was also in a smaller part of Puerto Rico where I would more easily encounter people that would speak to me in Spanish, since almost everyone can speak or understand English.
What was the best part about studying abroad? Favorite experience?
For me, the best part about studying abroad was getting to immerse myself in the culture. While I was there, I took part in anything and everything, and talked with anyone and everyone. Once I started to make friends with the locals and they began to help me travel, and helped teach me about the culture. I also took a Puerto Rican history class, which was actually one of my favorite classes. I even got a little coqui tattoo on my wrist to remind me of the time I spent abroad.
As I said, traveling was one of the best parts of studying abroad, but there were two places specifically, that I enjoyed the most: Culebra (a small island off of Puerto Rico that has the world’s 3rd most beautiful beach) and the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo. It was a struggle to get to Culebra because you need to get to the ferry before midnight and wait in line for hours just to catch the 6 am ferry. We had actually attempted, and failed, to go on two separate occasions before we were finally able to go. But the struggles, and the wait, was definitely worth it! Once we got off of the ferry, we went to Playa Flamenco which is considered the world’s 3rd most beautiful beach. The next day we also got to go to Playa Tamarindo where we got to swim with over 20 sea turtles!
This is a video of me hula hooping in Culebra:
Kayaking to the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo
But by far, my favorite experience was getting to kayak to the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo. As I mentioned before, it had always been my goal to visit a bioluminescent bay. I had also visited the bay in Lajas, but we went during a full moon, and it wasn’t as bright as the pictures I had seen on the Internet. The one in Fajardo is the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. We had to kayak for 2 miles before getting to the bay, but the ride felt like it only took 15 minutes. Once we got there, we all got anchored together and had a chance to play with the water underneath a tarp so that it could be as dark as possible to see the glow. I was wearing a dark shirt, so when I threw the water on me, it looked as if I was being showered with stars. Even though it was close to a full moon, it still looked like all of the pictures I had seen on the Internet. As the kayak drifted through the water, a bright glow trailed behind. Visiting the bioluminescent bay was by far one of my most magical experiences.
What did you struggle with? How did you overcome it?
Truthfully, I was always struggling with something while I was there. The first things I struggled with were the culture shock and language barrier. When I first got there, I couldn’t understand anything that anyone was saying to me, nor could I really respond to them because my Spanish wasn’t the greatest. I was also afraid to leave campus for the first week or so because I didn’t know the area, or any of the people. It was easier to overcome the culture shock than it was the language barrier though.
Mofongo con pollo. One of my favorite Puerto Rican dishes!
To overcome the culture shock, I did a few things. First, I tried to put myself out there and talk to as many people as I could. I didn’t become friends with most of them, but once I did find a group of friends, it was easier to settle into my new life abroad. Having friends also helped with the culture shock because it was easier for me to immerse myself in the culture with their help. Once I started to see the culture through their eyes, it became a lot easier, and more fun for me. Same with traveling; once I made friends and started traveling to different parts of the island with them, I forgot about how overwhelmed I was, and really started to enjoy myself. Lastly, my campus also had a councilor that was free for students, so I would see her once a week to talk about what problems I was having. That really helped me.
I also did quite a few things to overcome the language barrier. Most people could speak, or at least understand English, so when I really needed help, I was able to find it. But because I was there to improve my Spanish, I tried to stick to strictly Spanish: Plus all of my classes were in Spanish so I had to be able to understand my teachers. First thing I did was talk to my professors after my classes on the first day. I explained my situation to them and they were all very helpful; they would even check up on me to see how I was doing throughout the semester. They really were there to help me succeed. Second thing I did was again, just tried to talk to as many people as possible to practice my Spanish. People were very willing to help me, both in class and out of class. I also went to the tutor three times a week, two hours a session, just to talk in Spanish. When I went to the councilor every week, I also used it as a way to practice my Spanish. I had started out talking to her in English, but eventually tried speaking in Spanish more each time I saw her.
23 postcards in one night!
The last thing I struggled with was home sickness. I ended up staying in Puerto Rico for an extra 3 ½ months, so I was away from my friends and family for a total of 7 months. I had never been away from home for that long before. Out of everything that had to deal with, that was probably the toughest because there wasn’t really that much I could do to relieve it. I did Skype with many of my friends, called them on the phone, and sent them postcards and letters, but it still didn’t help as much as I wanted it to. My family also came to visit me for spring break though, so some of my homesick was relieved through spending time with them. But I just tried to take advantage of everything that Puerto Rico had to offer me so that I didn’t think about how much I missed my friends and family.
What advice would you have for those who want to study abroad?
Me and my advisor, Aruturo.
First of all: Just do it! Don’t worry about money, significant others, or anything else that might stop you. If you let those things hold you back, you’ll miss out on the experience of a lifetime. I almost let my fear of failing stop me. And if I had, I never would have met the people that I did, experienced what I did, or have accomplished my goal of becoming fluent in Spanish.
And if you experience culture shock or homesickness, there are ways to deal with it. Get out and meet people, explore the city, Skype your friends and family. It may seem hard, but I promise you will get through it.
How did studying abroad personally help you?
A mural of a coqui and the Puerto Rican flag that I found on the side of a building. The coqui is known as the symbol of Puerto Rico.
Studying abroad obviously helped me to better my Spanish, but it really helped me develop myself as a person as well. I have definitely become more confident in myself. While studying abroad, I was pretty much all on my own to figure out what I needed. Being able to not only survive, but flourish in a country where I know nothing (no people, the area, nor the language) is an amazing feeling. There is no better confidence builder than throwing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Lastly, studying abroad helped me find myself. As cheesy as that sounds, I did a lot of self-exploration while abroad. When you put yourself into a different environment, and again, throw yourself out of your comfort zone, you learn so much about yourself. Part of this is because you have nothing, or anyone, holding you back.
Check out the blog I kept while in Puerto Rico!