By Adrienne Weiss
A disclaimer is necessary before you risk reading this article. I have an extreme tendency to become very enthusiastic about learning, this ailment is generally known as being a nerd. I love learning, genuinely enjoy sitting down with my textbook, and spending an afternoon studying is something I make time for. My phone is full of podcasts about science innovations, the history of language, psychology, and philosophy, and most of all, I become very animated talking about pedagogy and educational styles. Yet despite my unusual affinity for the (often grueling) acquisition of information and collecting of new experiences, there were parts of jumping into a year of Adventist Colleges Abroad in Argentina that were uncomfortable, even for me.
Indulge me in a thought experiment. Imagine you walk into a room where a preschool birthday party is in full force. Thirty small children in sparkly pink dresses and sneakers that light up when they run are squealing with glee. Each has three balloons they are attempting to keep in the air and enthusiastically and uncoordinatedly batting towards your face with ecstatic peals of laughter. This sensation is what I encountered walking into my great aunt’s house when I understood just enough Spanish I could no longer simply let it wash over me, and it rather had the dizzying effect of being pummeled with balloons.
On this side of the family, English is at such a level when a grandchild says, “Hello, nice to meet you,” the superb use of English is applauded by the entire crowded room of relatives. Upon entering this virtual preschool party, I was kindly offered a beige-colored smoothie that was nearly chewable and by the end of that evening, I knew everyone I met was related to me, yet it took me months to figure out how.
(Half of the aunts and uncles, and a third of the cousins are represented in these pictures.)
When asked, “How was your year in Argentina?” I have my answer ready: “Wonderful, I’m glad I went.” But how can nine months of experience be summarized in one word? There are two statements that better explain the result of a year as an exchange student and I cannot take credit for either statement. The first made me laugh: my dad’s friend declared I have “this new thing” in my brain. Spanish, an entire language, really is “a new thing.” It’s a tool that can be used in a large number of disciplines and I managed to put it into my brain in the space of nine months. The second statement is I have become what might be called “bicultural.” I have learned and integrated sufficiently that I will never be in one place without missing the other, or the people who live there.
Choosing to spend a year in the ACA Argentina program had many motivators for me: I wished to learn Spanish, I hoped for a year to step back from my fast-paced science major, and I saw the unique opportunity to get to know the family on my father’s side and understand their culture. Arriving in Argentina I had less of a culture shock than I had anticipated. My Argentinian and Uruguayan grandparents had traveled down a couple weeks before me to visit family and prepare to introduce me to their siblings who live there and get me settled in “la Villa,” the 95-percent-Adventist community surrounding “Universidad Adventista del Plata,” where ACA students attend school alongside the Argentinian students.
My grandmother has two brothers who live within walking distance from my dormitory and the first week my grandparents took me to large family gatherings at each house, starting with Tío Roberto’s. As I had predicted, Spanish was tossed around the table and I watched it go flying by, feeling like I was at a tennis match. I quickly learned the art of the Argentinian kiss greeting, and a small vocabulary of niceties to pair with a smile when they offered unidentified food items. After a couple of hours at Tío Roberto’s house with two of his children and six of his grandchildren, I went back to my dorm room and took a long nap. This was only the first family gathering. The next one was the preschool party experience when I finally realized I had placed myself outside of my comfort zone and was about to learn in a way that was going to be a challenge even to a professed nerd.
I have also learned that often experiential learning is just as valuable as spending quality time with my textbooks. Trips to Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, and Chile taught me more about people, friendships, language, currency, planning, decision-making, and reminded me I am an adult more than four entire years of college with my nose in textbooks.
(My group of adventurers at Valparaiso in Chile and a view from “pan de Azucar” overlooking Rio De Janeiro.)
ACA helped me grow academically more than I expected. While learning a new language it is almost possible to feel the neural connections forming. I tired my friends with discussions about how I mixed up my languages and how fascinating this phenomenon was from a psychological perspective. Looking back at this year, I firmly believe I have grown, matured, and expanded my brain at least as much as studying organic chemistry for a year if not more.
The metacognition of learning a language fascinated me the entire year. I was constantly analyzing what parts of language my brain adopted easily and why, which words came to mind, or even noting moments when I was seeking a word and could not find it in either English or Spanish. I will encourage anyone I can to take a year abroad if only for the neuropathways that are created through learning a new language, with the bonus of seeing the world and making friends from across different continents. I believe regardless of which major I may be studying, the process of learning a new language will help me in learning all my other topics, and I hope to maintain my friendships from five continents.
With a little less time spent wrestling with numbers, I have allowed myself to observe creation with an eye toward the beauty and not just the organization of our world. Spring quarter, which in Argentina is actually fall, I was given the opportunity to participate in an internship working with the ESL teacher and helping students find opportunities to speak to real-live English-speakers. Our class began at 7 a.m., and we assistants watched the sunrise while walking to class. After observing a particularly vibrant orange, I commented to one of the ESL students how incredibly beautiful the bright sky was. He turned to me and replied, “Really? You mean you don’t have sunrises where you come from?” I realized it wasn’t beauty I lacked in my hometown, but an appreciation of my surroundings which I have gained this year with a conscious effort towards appreciating and soaking in the world around me, not just textbook facts.
(I will never stop missing Argentinian sunsets and sunrises. I would often delay my run until I could be sure to watch the sunset on my return trip.)
I believe only someone from outside of a culture can really view its beauty with fresh eyes. I hope having this new split perspective, I can maintain the ability to step fully into one culture or the other in order to observe American culture with Argentinian eyes, and Argentinian culture with American eyes, and avoid the jaded perspective of taking my culture for granted. Because if I learned anything this year it is that people, language, and all cultures really are beautiful.