Comparing Study Abroad Trips: Havana, Cuba Versus San Sebastian, Spain
My freshman year of college I made one of the best decisions of my life. That decision was to study abroad for my first time ever in San Sebastian, Spain. It was a three week summer program in which you live with a host family, take Spanish classes at a local school, and then meet as a group with our UMass Lowell faculty member to explore different topics and places in the city. This faculty member, Julian Zabalbeascoa, actually runs a different trip, as well, one that travels to Havana, Cuba, during the winter intersessions. As you can tell, I decided that I wanted to attend this trip, as well. So two years after my time in San Sebastian, I was on a flight to Havana, ready to see how this new study abroad measured up to the first. Now that I’ve had some time to look back on my experiences, I want to compare the two trips in order to shed some light on what they’re really all about.
Going in chronological order, I first studied abroad in San Sebastian the summer of 2017. I had just finished my first year of college and had this trip swirling around my mind for months previous to my departure. Everything was new territory: flying on my own, being in a Spanish speaking country, and studying abroad in general. I felt this surge of newfound independence and autonomy. Of course, the trip was beautiful, even better than it looks in the pictures. We lived in pairs with different host families around the city. Because of this, it didn’t take more than a minute to feel 100% immersed in the city. I pushed myself to get out of my comfort zone with the foods I ate and the things I did. Without a doubt, I loved the person I felt like I became during this trip; someone who was more out of their shell and more in touch with the essence of life.
For me, this trip was all about connecting with myself. I learned a lot, did a lot of cool things, and made memories I will never forget. But the personal growth I got out of it is what hits me the most.
Two years later, I finally committed to the decision that I would also study abroad in Havana, Cuba, during the Winter 2019 intercession. I was a little bit older now, and I had already experienced the magic of traveling on my own once before. Nonetheless, I was just as excited to embark on another meaningful life experience. Cuba was different for a few reasons. One that stands out in my mind is how much time we spent as a UML group. Of course there are logistical reasons behind this, but we definitely always had a few hours together every day, which was not the case in Spain. All the students also lived together, which was new for me. I actually liked this because it made it way easier to communicate since phones are out of the picture. And the final largest difference was the age of the group, and what they wanted out of the trip. When I went to Spain, almost all of us were on the younger side, and intended to simply experience the world with other young people. Those who went on the Cuba trip were all, in comparison, a slightly older crowd who wanted to learn about the real Cuba in order to break down any stereotypes that may surround it. It felt a touch more educational in regards to our world and our history, and how its impacts can be seen in Cuba today. It was not the beach vacation some people imagine San Sebastian to be. Cuba truly was a trip to gain understanding of how others live in the world around us. I love the respect I gained for Cubans through this trip, and I found myself connecting on a deeper level with my fellow students. Our conversations over dinner, whether they be about Cuba or not, made me think about life and what I want to do with mine. So rather than just finding myself, I really found genuine connection with others.
Looking back, I feel that I gained a lot from both of these trips. You may have noticed I used the phrase “life experience” earlier, and that’s because I truly believe a study abroad trip gives you life experience. It is something you can hold on to forever, and that will permanently alter you. I would highly recommend both of these trips, especially if they are out of your comfort zone because no vacation in the world could mimic what a study abroad can do for a person. If you are hesitant, be brave. If you’re a picky eater, try something new. Even if you don’t speak any Spanish (like me), go to Spain or Cuba anyway and learn. I want to thank the honors college, API, and Professor Zabalbeascoa for allowing me these experiences that were immensely important to myself and my college experience. They were life experiences I hold near my heart and always will.