When Amanda first decided to study abroad, her main goal was to learn Spanish. What she didn’t realize was how much more she would discover about the world and herself. In this edited interview, we delve into Amanda’s year abroad in Spain, the cultural adjustment period, the importance of international exchange, and her experience as a black American abroad.
She also touches on how her AFS experience helped with college applications and primed her to study abroad again—she’s excited to attend Howard University in the fall and study abroad in Brazil for her junior year. Read all of Amanda’s valuable insights and experiences below.
Please tell us about how you see your identity, in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, or any other aspect that you would like to share.
I’m a black woman, or a black Christian American woman.
How did you find out about AFS?
I found out about AFS because Shameeka (AFS-USA’s Manager of Scholarships & Diversity Initiatives) came to my school and gave a presentation about AFS and all the places you can go. We had a few exchange students in my class and a boy from Bangladesh who told me about it.
Why did you decide to study abroad?
Honestly, I was having a very hard time [during my sophomore year of high school] and I wanted to transfer schools, but my principal didn’t think that was a good idea. And I came from a language academy in elementary school, so my Spanish teacher thought it would be a good idea if I took a break for a year, studied abroad, and furthered my education and knowledge in Spanish.
Did studying abroad in Spain heighten your stress or anxiety?
The atmosphere in Spain is a lot more relaxed. Maybe it’s just being an inner-city kid, being from Chicago, kids are worried about shoes and clothes and hair and how you look. Especially at my high school, you need to have your nails done and your eyebrows done and the newest shoes. It was completely different, and I appreciated how less materialistic people in Spain were.
Can you recall an “a-ha” moment when you were in Spain when you felt you understood everything, and realized “I’m adjusting, and I can do this”?
It was probably when, in early October, they gave out this little thing, it was for our trip to Italy for the junior class trip. I was like, “Yeah, I don’t have any friends, I’m not going to go.” My host brother was really encouraging me to go, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to room with him because he’s a boy. We were sitting in class talking about roommates and five girls came up to me and asked me to room with them. They genuinely wanted me to be with them and liked me. I felt welcomed and appreciated.
That trip to Italy was probably one of the best times of my life. We went to nine cities …we had such an amazing time. I always said the best part of going to Spain was going to Italy [laughs]. I picked up on the language a lot faster because I was talking back and forth with my friends on the plane and long bus rides and in the hotel rooms.
What was the adjustment period like for your mom?
My mom is a worrier and asked a million questions. She knows I’m a worrier, so she was worried for me. She was so comfortable with my host mother and she actually became friends with her. After talking with my host mom and his brothers, she was fine. She was so happy and knew it was a great experience for me.
Did you have any hesitations about being an exchange student?
Homesickness. I knew I would miss my family, but I didn’t know the extent of it because I had never been that far from home for that long. I had some friends right before I left, so I feared that those relationships would be lost while I was abroad. But honestly, none of that happened. Actually, I would say those relationships got better.
I feel like I’m a lot more confident in myself and what I can do. Any teachers that I had freshman and sophomore year who talk to me now say I’m a whole different student. It’s really cool seeing how studying abroad impacted my social life and me as a person.
Do you attribute your sense of confidence to your AFS experience?
I definitely associate my confidence with my AFS experience. Learning the language, I was hesitant at first and it was a lot to take on. I’m a perfectionist and I like doing things right the first time. I probably learned that from cheerleading, because their famous line is “everyone is replaceable and everyone can get kicked off, you don’t matter that much,” so I was always on defense mode.
But when I was in Spain, I realized we can all learn from each other and nobody is judging me or wants to see me fail. It was a more comfortable environment that allowed me to show my true colors.
Tell us a little bit about the college application process. What did you write about in your essays?
A big part of my essay was about my trip abroad. I used that for my personal statement. I talked about my experience, what motivated me to go abroad, and how I feel my experience abroad has impacted me now and the decisions I’ve made as I move on in my senior year. This week I decided I’ll be attending Howard in the fall. I thought Howard would be best for my major in Political Sciences.
In your experience studying abroad, did questions on race ever come up (either from students, your host family, or the greater host community)? If so, how did you navigate them?
It was never an issue, but questions did come up a lot. Where I studied abroad in Spain, there weren’t a lot of black people. It wasn’t a big city like Madrid or Barcelona. The only black people they see are people from Africa and they don’t really respect them.
Once I was at carnival practice with my host mother, and we met a man and he was asking me where I was from. He told me that his niece went to the school I attended, so he called his niece and was describing me, and he was like, “Yeah, she’s about this tall, 5’5 and she’s mulatta.” Which means black, but not black black, black white. I would just say I’m black, but my host mom pointed at the African dark-skinned person and said no, they’re black. And I said, “I’m black too!” You don’t want to argue with your host mom, so I let it go.
We would talk about American history in my world history class and anytime slavery came up, my classmates would ask “Would you have been a slave? Because you’re not black black,” and I said, “Oh I would’ve been a slave!” In America, I am black and that’s it, but in Spain, it was “are you black or are you black?”
Was the journey of studying abroad what you expected? Why or why not? What surprised you?
I feel like I’m a better and more cultured person than I was before. Of course, every aspect wasn’t what I expected. It was better than what I expected. I learned a lot, met some people that I still talk to today; I’m hoping to visit my host mom and brothers this summer. I gained so many friendships that I value and hope to carry for the rest of my life.
I wanted to learn Spanish, that was my main focus [at first]. In retrospect, I see that that’s an important part, but it’s the friendships and experiences of a new culture and place that are the most valuable.
Do you feel like your identity as a black woman played a big role in your experience as an exchange student?
I would say it played a big role because at AFS, there weren’t that many black exchange students. There were more of us at the pre-departure in New York. There were three black kids. We definitely stood out and it was definitely a conversation. One was from southside of Chicago five minutes from where I live. We’d talk about how we wished more black kids would go abroad.
Being a black woman definitely played a role in my experience because I’m black every day and I’m a woman every day and that’s not something you see every day [in Spain]. In the U.S., its normal but in Spain it isn’t. That’s something that probably made my experience even more valuable. It’s something I can use to encourage other black kids to study abroad.
Speaking of… Do you have any advice for black or African American students going abroad?
I didn’t get my host family until late, so I worried in the back of my mind, “Do they not want me because I’m black?” It’s something I would think about. I would say don’t worry and don’t go into it thinking like that because most host families are open to people from different cultures, races, colors, anything, so they wouldn’t be the person to judge you.
In your opinion, why is intercultural exchange important?
Cultural exchange is important because we are in such a big world and there’s so many different types of people. There’s a need to create more love and happiness and understanding of other cultures. To bring us together, rather than divide us. Language and culture can bring us together so much. We think in the U.S. that we’re the powerhouse and things don’t affect us, but other countries have so many interesting, beautiful things going on that we can learn from.
Do you think study abroad builds a more just and peaceful world?
I definitely do! Even some kids I met who came to AFS, they came in thinking that there was nothing they could learn and they knew everything. But, they left the program more levelheaded and understanding and the AFS experience did that for them. They understood that other cultures impact us and to have respect for other cultures and people.
Any last thoughts?
I would’ve liked to have seen an article like this before I went abroad. It was rare to see a black girl in high school studying abroad and it’s important for everyone to see. Even though not everyone is the same, seeing someone like you go into a similar situation is helpful.
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Inspired by Amanda? We are, too. ?
Studying abroad is a life-changing experience for almost anyone, no matter your background or prior experience. We challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone and be curious about life in a new environment. Just remember that there are always resources to help you along the way.
To start, take a look at the Advice & Resources for Black Students Abroad that our Students of Color Exchange group created and compiled. And, for ways to fund your journey abroad, check out our scholarships and Faces of America initiative. If you would like personalized advice or have any experiences you would like to share with us, reach out to the Students of Color Exchange group at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you.