My cousin, Vilmarie, recently came back from studying abroad in Madrid, Spain and she loved it!! I hope to shed some light on the topic as well as answer any questions or concerns that you might have regarding studying abroad.
I wanted to brag on my cousin for a quick second. Vilmarie is a junior in college and has already lobbied in the Senate of Puerto Rico. She founded and is the CEO of a nonprofit organization. Moreover, Vilmarie won several awards for her work.
She moved to South Carolina in the United States with her mother and brother after Hurricane Maria knocked out power and water to nearly the entire island. My aunt was diagnosed with MS in 2014. As a result, they moved because the conditions on the island were not favorable.
This diagnosis shook our family, but this only added fuel to Vilmarie’s fire. Puerto Rico doesn’t have much information about MS so Vilmarie decided to do her Gold Award for Girl Scouts about spreading awareness for the disease.
Girl Scouts Gold Award
Beginning in 2016, she started working on a project that resulted in her receiving the Girl Scouts Gold Award and the Girl Scouts National Young Women of Distinction Award, both in 2017. Her mission was to orient doctors in Puerto Rico about MS and how to assist patients and the general public. Her plan for action did not stop there; the project led her to create a nonprofit organization in 2017 that also educates the public about MS, called Community Organization of Multiple Sclerosis and Cancer Inc. (COMSC). The organization distributes information and coordinates lectures to students, hospital administrators, doctors, MS patients and the general public in Puerto Rico. COMSC also raises awareness about cancer prevention, which is important to her since her grandfather and great-grandmother both died of cancer.
She made a page about MS and cancer prevention in 2016, and it has nearly 3,000 followers from across the world now. Subsequently, many patients write to her through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and ask her questions about the condition because they don’t have the right resources.
She started doing more research about what else she could do to help people in Puerto Rico with MS. She saw that there was a bill pending in the senate in Puerto Rico,
Senate Bill 1180 proposed to create a required registry of people diagnosed with MS in Puerto Rico – she immediately became an advocate for it. At just 16 years old, she caught the attention of legislators by emailing, calling and personally lobbying at the Senate office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and meeting with former Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla at La Fortaleza in San Juan.
For three consecutive months, she raised awareness for the cause with help from her friends from Girl Scouts.
The bill passed unanimously and became Law 85 on July 22, 2016, creating the first required registry for MS in the world, and making it easier for scientists and doctors to receive federal funding for research and treatment.
Now let’s get into the studying abroad Q&A!
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Studying Abroad: Planning and Pre-departure
1. How did you get started studying abroad? What age?
I started studying abroad when I was 20 years old. I decided to do this after I went to a study abroad fair.
2. Did you always know you wanted to study abroad?
I always wanted to travel to Europe, but I didn’t know when. My dream was to go to Paris on my 21st birthday.
3. What made you want to study abroad in your location?
My study abroad was in Madrid. Since I study communications, I wanted to experience another side of the field and get the grip behind the cameras. To clarify, I learned a lot of their techniques and how they manage the radio.
4. How did you pick your program?
It was with the program that my university managed. The center of global engagement gave me all of the information and the direction of where and what to do. My study abroad time couldn’t have gone any more smoothly.
5. What did you pack that you definitely didn’t need?
There were two things that I didn’t even use. The first one was my blow dryer. The plug didn’t support the ones that Spain has. The second thing I didn’t use was my kitchen utensils. Yes, I brought that in my bag, because I wanted to be prepared. The place I stayed at was fully furnished.
6. What were you excited about and/or nervous about before you left?
I was excited about going to another country and getting to know their culture, meeting other people from other countries. I was nervous about adjusting to their environment.
7. How were classes different there from classes here?
First of all, their grading is not from F to A. The professor grades you from 0 to 10, meaning that zero is the lowest grade and 10 is the highest. Also, the final exam determines if you pass the class or not.
8. Which class was your favorite?
My favorite class was a journalism class. The professor was really cool. There is no other way to describe him. He made us go out on the field and interview random people. There was even one time that he made us interview Dory. Yes, the fish from Finding Nemo.
9. What was the food like?
The best meal over there are “tapas” (famous dish in Spain). Everyone that came to visit, my flatmates and I used to take them to a well-known restaurant there. It’s called 100 Montaditos and there was one in every corner of Madrid.
10. What new foods did you try?
I tried “jamón ibérico,” which is the ultimate cured ham, with a decadently rich nutty flavor that evokes the countryside of Spain. I also tried paella española, and Kebabs, surprisingly.
11. What is the weirdest thing you ate?
It’s a simple dish, but the weird thing that I ate must be fried potatoes with beef, chicken, and a fried egg.
12. What kind of food did you miss from home?
My grandma’s cooking in general, especially the white rice with red beans, tostones, and fried chicken.
13. What advice would you give to another student?
Don’t be afraid of new changes in your life because this opportunity will open many new experiences. It will also help your state of mind.
14. What was the most surprising thing you did or saw?
That an apartment with people from different backgrounds, cultures, mentalities, perspectives, etc. came together as a family.
15. How safe did you feel there?
At first, I was really scared to walk around alone. I didn’t go out of my room unless I needed to. After a couple of days, I took that shyness away and started to feel secure about my surroundings.
16. What was the weather like?
It was really cold for most of my stay, but when summer came it was impossible to withstand (at least that was what people that where living in Madrid told me).
17. How did you get around?
Mostly by train, bus or walking.
18. What was public transportation like?
It really surprises me because I’ve never seen anything like the transportation that is in Madrid. In America, we mostly get to places in a car. In contrast, Europe’s public transportation system is really efficient and precise.
19. What was your favorite travel experience?
My favorite travel experience must be traveling to Rome. I met so many wonderful people from all around the world. I went to events with them and got to know them better.
20. What was your favorite place that you traveled to?
Italy, especially Venice. I loved being around water and wonderful sunsets.
21. Did you find any cool places that you weren’t expecting?
When I was in Pisa, we ate one of the best fish that I’ve ever tasted. In addition, went to a beautiful beach. Also, when walking around in Salzburg trying to find the scene where they filmed “Sound of Music,” I saw the most amazing lake and it had a view of the mountains. It was just a magical experience.
22. What kind of free activities did you find?
Walking was one of the free activities that I can think off. Most importantly, I found many beautiful and unusual places that didn’t know existed.
23. What is one touristy thing you would not recommend doing?
Going to the mainstream restaurants. By that I mean, the ones that are close to famous monuments or attractions. The further you go, the better. In fact, you could look through Google and see what the reviews are for the restaurants.
24. What is one touristy thing that is totally worth it?
Knowing or planning everything ahead of time to places you want to go.
Studying Abroad: Housing
25. What was your housing situation like?
I lived in an apartment with 17 other people. I had my own room and shared a bathroom with two other girls.
26. What housing options were you able to choose from?
Housing is really expensive. I tried my best to find a place where I could live comfortably and not waste too much money. It took me a long time to find that place because it’s hard to house hunt.
27. How were the people you lived with like?
The people that I lived with are my friends. I used to go on trips with them and have a nice days in Madrid. Sometimes we just stayed in the house and watched movies and prepared meals for each other.
Friends & Family
28. How did you keep in touch with people while you were abroad?
I usually spoke to my family and friends during the day (Europe time). It was all through WhatsApp and sometimes on Instagram.
29. How did it work for you to have a cell phone while abroad?
I had the phone that I had in the US, but only changed the chip in it.
30. Will you stay in touch with people?
Yes! We have a groupchat on WhatsApp.
31. What were the locals you met like?
All of them were very friendly and welcoming.
32. What were the people like in your program?
I didn’t get the chance to actually hang out with them.
33. What was the most common thing people asked you about where you are from?
Spaniards felt weird whenever I spoke in Spanish because I spoke English very well. They thought I couldn’t understand their Spanish. They would always ask me where I was from whenever I started speaking in Spanish.
34. How would you compare family life here and family life there?
I didn’t have much experience in family life in Spain, but in England it’s really open-minded and not so strict.
Finances & Budgeting
35. How did you budget for your time abroad?
I thought that I was going to be traveling every weekend, but I wanted to settle down and explore Madrid first. Therefore, I didn’t get the chance to travel so much like other people. However, before I left back to the US I traveled to a couple of places here and there.
36. Did you spend more or less than you thought?
I spent a lot of money at the beginning, but then I balanced myself out.
37. Were there any expenses you weren’t expecting?
I wasn’t expecting to eat out as much as I did.
38. Are there scholarships or grants that you would recommend applying for?
I recommend to apply to scholarships that universities offer and the ones that you search for online, those are really helpful.
Studying Abroad: Personal Growth
39. What is one thing that you expected that wasn’t actually true?
That Spaniard took naps.
40. What was the hardest adjustment you had to make?
Trying to leave and do things by myself. Also, adjusting myself to an apartment of 18 people.
41. Did you cross anything off your bucket list?
I went to some places that I wanted to visit, but my bucket list isn’t quite crossed off yet.
42. What was the most interesting thing you learned about the culture?
Spaniards are used to eat dinner really late and go to sleep super late.
43. What did you learn about your own culture by living in another one?
In Puerto Rico, we are really loud and friendly.
44. How did you deal with homesickness?
I cooked my mom’s and grandma’s homemade food. Tried to do mofongo, white rice and red beans, tostones, etc.
45. What did you learn about yourself?
That I could be independent and manage difficult situations by myself.
46. How are you different? How are you the same?
I can speak up more and be more of an extrovert. I still stumble with my words while I speak in English, but I think I’ve gotten better. I’m still humble and like to help people.
Studying Abroad: Returning Home
47. Did you experience jetlag when you came back? How did you overcome it?
Yes, I was traveling for almost 24 hours. I slept on the plane for 8 of them, but when I got to my hotel I took a shower and immediately went to sleep. After that, it was hard to get back to my routine and sleep 8 hours.
48. Where are you going next?
I plan to go to Madrid again for another semester because I loved living there.
49. Will you go back? When?
Yes, I am going back for the fall semester in about a month.
50. What is one thing you wish you could have brought back with you?
All of my friends that I met there.
51. What is one thing you would change about your study abroad experience?
To be less shy in the beginning and to travel more.
52. How would you describe study abroad in five words?
Amazing experience, I loved it!