Ryan Rodriguez is an AFS-USA Pride Scholar who traveled to Spain on our Global Prep program. In his personal essay, Ryan reflects on his experience abroad with his host family, contemplates faith and existentialism, and describes how his time abroad instilled a desire to see the world.
It all appears to me now as if I have endured some sort of exotic fever dream filled with my greatest fantasies and the fulfillment of all of my life’s wishes, but in reality, I spent the best two weeks of my life exploring the world both within and around the Spanish city of Valladolid. Nothing can encompass the smells, sights, cities, passion, history, or the struggles (my own and those of others) I experienced in a mere fourteen or so days. I honestly worried myself thinking that the idea of a “Global Prep” program would be ridiculously fast-paced, but in reality, although I was moving from place to place both in class and at my host home, it was perfect for me.
The only aspect of my days that ever slightly remained consistent was breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which were cushioned in my schedule by activities ranging from a sun-soaked scavenger hunt across the entire city to dancing Bollywood at an Indian culture museum. I think of it now, and regardless of whether I was in Valladolid, Madrid, Salamanca, or any of the plethora of big cities and small villages, I was loving life, telling stories, sharing culture, and teaching new lessons (including how to pronounce the word “artichoke” every night at dinner).
My host family was extremely accommodating, loving, curious, and insightful; and that goes for everyone from my youngest host brother to my host parents.
Alvaro [my host brother] was part of my family overseas and will remain a part of my family for the rest of my life, as will the amazing members of his family. I could not have fit better into my Spanish family. They re-shaped my perspective on enjoying things I never considered, such as learning Spanish history and eating green olives! Even when my family and I spent the day relaxing at home, the simple flutter of a deck of Spanish cards was enough to remind me of how phenomenal the embrace of my AFS host family had become. I would not have wanted to see the world with any other family, and to this day I text my host family and share photos of how my life back at home continues without them. Not a day has passed since my return home where I haven’t thought of their smiling faces greeting me off the bus on day one, and I doubt one will pass because my family in Spain has become a part of my family back at home, and they will forever remain as such.
One of my favorite family photos of us spending my last Saturday at a Medieval festival, and I believe it is this one photo which encapsulates just how close to my family I grew in less than two full weeks. If I close my eyes I really can think back to that specific moment, and that is a memory I will never be able to forget.
One particularly memorable Sunday with my host family comes to mind; one which taught me some things I never considered about faith. It was, as always, another sweltering day under the Spanish sun, and the plan was to visit the pueblo of Rueda, my host dad’s childhood town. First, an organ concert which surprisingly enough, stirred emotions I didn’t even know I possessed. Now, I didn’t expect much of anything but some beautiful, antique organ music shaking the walls of a small village church, but what I experienced was a stint of meditative introspection. As my natural mother never pushed faith onto any of her children, I never had much experience with churches beyond touring them, but here it was; my first time sitting in a pew (I promise you I am not lying). Before me towered a golden depiction of angels surrounding Saint Anne, and I simply couldn’t believe what a beautiful work of dedicated artistry stood in front of my very own eyes. Following my moments of awestruck, the program was distributed, and I wasn’t surprised when I couldn’t recognize the setlist for that morning’s concert. Nevertheless, I peeled my ears and as the organ began to play I respectfully tuned in. Before I knew it, I was soaking in the sounds of the music and naturally began contemplating all things religious. What drives people to dedicate endless days to constructing such beautiful altars? Is that what “having faith” is? How can someone find such peace within religion and such a love for the idea of one God? Existentialism at its finest, indeed.
Right after the concert I was able to meet the organist himself, and not only did I get a free lesson on different types of organ structures, but I was also taught that the reason the organ sits in the back of some churches is so that it can provide its audience with a chance to think; a moment of meditation. There it was! I wasn’t enduring some odd internalized crisis, I had been meditating and didn’t even know it.
The whole reason I even got the chance to meet the famous organist was due to the help of my host dad’s mom, my Abuela. She was the assistant page-turner who introduced us, and the next important lesson I learned that day came straight from her. After the concert, we walked to her home for the most amazing lunch I have ever shared in my life. But before we got to the good eats, my host dad mentioned to abuela that I was interested in visiting the family pharmacy which was attached to the house. Without a moment of hesitation, my abuela unlocked the door and toured me around the pharmacy which her daughter runs full time to service the close-knit community of Rueda. From there it was the garden, and the living room, and the bedrooms, and cross after cross, painting after painting, this woman’s home became more and more animated. It flourished in its antiquity, and I came to understand this being a direct result of how genuinely content she was with life. Not a moment passed where she wasn’t smiling, and after speaking with her I realized it was all because of two things; the health of her family, and her love of God.
Not only did this reinforce the thoughts I began having in the church, but it also helped me understand that true happiness, that one thing we are all seemingly in pursuit of, can be found in the simplest of things.
When considering the challenges I faced abroad, my mind immediately jumped to the age gap between my host brother and I. Considering a large majority of my American counterparts were paired with host brothers and sisters their ages, I was a bit of a black sheep. With almost four years between myself and my host brother, it was difficult finding a point of relatability with him. Our interests didn’t align, and neither did our understandings of independent responsibilities nor life experiences. By the end of my first weekend abroad, I discovered his interests in traveling to America, so from that point forward I would use that to help us get along. I answered all his questions honestly, and insightfully, hoping to instill some trust between us. Though we never became best friends, I know for a fact both he, and his younger brother of ten years, learned to see me as less of “that American boy” and more like the older brother they never had.
One thing I never really expected from my Global Prep experience in Spain was that very same love I received not just from my family, but from just about everyone I met, including that one pharmacist who helped clear up my canker sores, and my host aunt who recommended watercolor painting as a way to beat stress. I assumed I naturally wouldn’t be completely accepted into the community I felt like I was invading, but in fact, they embraced me wholeheartedly. They changed the way I saw Spain because I knew I could place the trust a first-time traveler doesn’t typically have into just about anyone without fearing I would be taken advantage of.
I know just what greatness the world has to offer, and luckily, I now get to share that greatness with others. I am currently in the process of drafting my presentation for my school in which I will detail the benefits of study abroad through the lens of my Global Prep adventures. My principal has also given me the okay to enact a scholarship at my school for students who are interested in pursuing global studies and foreign language. My friends have already gotten the chance to hear some of my stories and even try some of the food I ate in Spain, now it is time to bring that vibrancy to a larger audience. As I embark on my journey into my senior year of high school, I am still unsure about a lot of the finer details of my future. However, I remain steadfast in my love for sharing the misunderstood and misrepresented possibilities the world around my classmates and me has to offer. I can imagine every other essay and video addresses their experience as “the trip of a lifetime.” Although this trip will remain influential for my lifetime, it was also just one of many future trips which will constitute my life, therefore making my Global Prep Spain experience merely “a trip of a lifetime.”
Thank you to every member of the AFS staff both in the U.S. and Spain who made my experience possible and thank you to my host family for having the willingness to share your personal lives with me, and the willingness to help other American students such as myself find their homes away from home.
My sincerest gratitude,
Ryan’s essay so vividly captures the way in which travel imbues our lives with meaning. If you’re an openly identifying LGBTQ+ student with a desire to see the world and have an impactful experience abroad, apply for our Pride Scholarship and receive up to $4,000 towards an AFS Study Abroad program!