British politician Michael Gove once said that “learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children.” Although I started leaning Spanish in middle school, I can say with absolute confidence that learning to speak Spanish and immersing myself in various cultures, as well as being able to communicate on a personal level with a large spectrum of people has been one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences in my life thus far.
In August 2015, I studied in Cayey, Puerto Rico as an exchange student through the National Student Exchange (NSE) program offered through UAS. Because Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, this trip was a fairly inexpensive and efficient way to explore a completely foreign and tropical island that doesn’t even require a passport.
Situated in the Caribbean Sea between the Dominican Republic and the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico has incredible things to offer given its relatively small island size. My goal in Puerto Rico was to be conversational, if not fluent, in Spanish by the end of the semester and while at times that seemed like a lofty goal, I slowly became aware of changes starting to take place in my brain that really encouraged me during the semester; verb tenses that I had studied in school but never understood suddenly began to make sense! It was such a good feeling!
Complete immersion of a culture and language can be challenging and maybe even frustrating at times, but it is by far the most effective way to learn, and for me it was one hundred percent worth every overwhelming and slightly terrifying moment. Another aspect that fascinated me was that for all my life I have been learning a type of Spanish that is mainly spoken in Spain, but during this experience, I was immersed in a totally new, quirky regional type of Spanish that is very complimentary of their culture.
The little town of Cayey is located in the center of the island which also lies within the island’s only mountain range, the Cordilla Central. Cayey is home to the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey campus, famous Olympic boxer Alberto Mercado, and is the hometown of the band singers Wisin y Yandel. One of the aspects of the island that I loved the most was the astounding level of diversity that Puerto Rico offers with its landmarks and its physical features. Parts of the island were dense rainforest, others beautiful sandy beaches, some were big urban cities and others were more arid and used mainly for agriculture.
During the five months that I spent there, I was able to attend many town festivals, poetry slams, outdoor artisan markets, beach clean-ups and other unique activities. On the weekends my friends and I would travel around the island and visit historic landmarks like El Morro, which is a 16th century citadel in Old San Juan, and of course a ton of amazing beaches. I was also able to fly to the island of Culebra, which is one of the outermost islands in the Virgin Island chain and is a great place to go to experience raw, authentic Puerto Rican culture. It was in Culebra that I got the chance to taste iguana legs and plantain pizza, snorkel with sea turtles, and visit the #2 beach in the world, La Playa Flamenco.
Perhaps what was most amazing about all of these experiences is that I was immersed in the culture and language the whole time and the effects of it were so crucial to my overall learning experience, and yet I didn’t even realize it at the time. One of the classes that I took that semester was a United States History course that was both taught in Spanish and from a Puerto Rican perspective, as opposed to the U.S. superpower perspective that I have learned from my entire life. I quickly picked up on the fact that almost every Puerto Rican my age wanted their independence from the United States, and for good reason.
When Christopher Columbus landed there in 1493, Spain immediately colonized the island, killed off all of the indigenous people, the Taínos, and kept it as a territory up until 1900. When the Foraker Law was put in place by the US, the island immediately transitioned into an American territory and left Puerto Rico to live the life of a pawn in the imperial trade game. While there are Puerto Ricans from older generations that wish to become our 51st state, the ones actively seeking independence are the ones that are heard the most. The history course taught me so much about my country and gave me a firsthand look at how our actions affect, both positively and negatively, other nations and states.
It may sound cheesy, but all the money in the world could not have taught me what this exchange experience did. Living in a country with a struggling economy, a country with a 44% poverty rate, and yet a country with the friendliest and nicest people you’ll ever meet really opened my eyes in ways I didn’t think possible. Looking back, I realize that I could not have achieved my Spanish speaking goals without this exchange experience and I am so grateful for attending a school that has such an involved and organized study away office. Now, not only do I have the experiences and memories to hold on to, I also have an insatiable craving for rice and beans and plantains. I think that’s a win-win.