Joe, outbound to Spain

As I cross the halfway point in my exchange, I can look back and really see how far I’ve come. I’ve adapted to living in this new culture, a culture that a year ago I knew almost nothing about. I’ve learned the language at a fast pace, and am able to express my self in my new language. I have learned an incredible amount about the world, Spain, and the United States, and how people and societies from around the world really can learn to work together and live in peace. And also with its due importance, I have learned much about myself.

During the past month and a half I have been very busy with school in Spain (which is quite rigorous), but one weekend I was able to travel to Madrid to spend two days with a family who live in Madrid that I knew from the United States. It was very cool to visit them again, as when we would spend time together in the United States we would only speak in English, and if they wanted to say something that maybe we wouldn’t want to hear, they could switch to Spanish and we wouldn’t have a clue. When I went to visit them in Madrid we spoke a fun mix of English and Spanish, and me being able to speak Spanish definitely added another layer of depth to our relation.

To speak about my language acquisition in Spain, I would be avoiding the elephant in the room if I didn’t mention the word “fluent”. Fluent, “able to speak a language very well” (Merriam Webster), I believe carries with it a misleading connotation. A huge focus of my exchange (and I feel the exchange of most students) was to become fluent. My quarrel with this word is that its usage seems to imply there exists a moment in which one crosses the line dividing fluency and non-fluency. That one day on my exchange I would go to bed not knowing the language, and wake up fluent. I feel like this goal of a singular moment of achievement has anchored my ideas of what defines excellence or success. That if I reached the level “fluent” in Spanish I would be able to talk to so many people and I would have reached a level of excellence in Spanish. That if I became rich I could travel the world and do so many cool things, and live a life filled with excellence. That if I got good grades in school I would be guaranteed excellence without regard for keeping the work ethic learned by getting good grades.

In school (in Spain) I study the subject philosophy. In this class I have learned the interesting way in which great minds view the world. Aristotle (a very important figure in this subject) says in his famous quote “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”. I feel like this quote is incredibly true. Relating to my views of achievement listed earlier, would working hard to achieve excellence in fluency of Spanish really achieve anything if I didn’t practice the language for years afterwards, and lost the fluency? Would becoming rich matter if I abandoned my practices which made me rich and squandered my money and got left with nothing? Would getting good grades in school matter if I abandoned the habits and practices that helped me achieve good grades after graduating? This quote by Aristotle articulates a great lesson I have learned on exchange. That Excellence is not just a goal we can reach (becoming fluent, getting rich, getting great grades in school) nor is it reaching a certain level or status (“fluent”, “millionaire”, “Harvard”). Excellence is the values (determination, love, compassion) that we show every day. By creating and living by these habits of excellence, we can still achieve these goals. But we will not be who we are or excellent as a result of achieving a goal, we will have achieved the goal as a result of who we are and what we do every day to grow excellence.

Bringing this view into the perspective of my year as an exchange student. This year is not just “my one year abroad in Spain”, of which I can tell stories of my achievements for years to come. This is a special year woven into the fabric of my life; a year with incredible challenges to help me shape who I am , and who I want to become. By the same token, I will strive to implement into my daily habits what I learned in Spain. I will act upon what I have learned from my year abroad every single day, to shape who I am. If I bring the lessons I’ve learned, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been into my everyday life. I will become something much more than a title, an achievement, or a story. I would become closer the embodiment of the values of determination, love, and compassion I would show every single day.

So I feel that what one should ask about a student's exchange is not if the student is fluent, but if the student is applying themselves fully to immerse themselves in the culture, to learn the language, and to grow and learn as a person.

I would like to thank Rotary for giving me this incredible opportunity to experience the world in a new way.

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