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Stephanie Momanyi

About My Study Abroad Program

Major/Minor: Nutrition, Global studies, Minor: Chemistry
Program: IES Abroad Language and Area Studies: Madrid
Location: Madrid, Spain
Term: Spring 2023


Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you select your program?
In 8th grade, I took my first Spanish class. On the first day of school, my Spanish teacher pulled up a powerpoint and the front slide was coated with pictures from her Madrid abroad experience. For the next hour, I was mesmerized by her experience of culture and language and how she virtually returned home fluent in Spanish. She talked about how it fueled her career of being a Spanish teacher and how she would eventually skip around the Spanish speaking countries of the world exploring and getting to live out her cultural dream. From that day, I was obsessed. The moment I went home I told my parents that I needed to go abroad and sure enough, 2 years later during the second semester of my sophomore year of high school, I found myself in the middle of Madrid, staring at the skyscrapers of Gran Vía and truly feeling like I had achieved my dream. I spent 7 months going to school, learning the language, and having some of the best experiences of my life like seeing the Sagrada Familia for the first time (I cried). After living with a host family, seeing my school's soccer team win the championship for their conference, and basking in the sun on the beaches of Galicía, I vowed to myself (and my host sister) that I would return to Spain. Spain was my first love. Spain sparked my love for travel. Spain changed my perspective on what it means to be Black abroad. I owe a lot to my high school abroad experience. I even wrote my common app essay to get into UNC on taking the metro around Madrid. I never forgot about Madrid, and exactly 4 years later, I found myself back around the dinner table with the smell of my host mom's tortilla filling up the room. Study abroad had made such an impact on my high school experience that I knew I had to go back in college. One of my criteria for picking colleges was the study abroad programs provided and I was even lucky enough to have my scholarship fund it for me. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to walk the streets that were my previous home and reconnect with classmates that taught me Spanish slang, while also discovering new streets to walk on and new friends to pick up along the way. I got the chance to see how life as a college student was in the city and bathe in the whole experience. I got to visit over 15 cities in Europe and document my memories along the way to keep for years to come. For me, when it came to my college experience, it was not a question about IF I was going abroad, it was about when. As for my program, I chose it because it was a very language immersive program. I was already pretty fluent in Spanish and I wanted a program that would really stretch my Spanish skills and help me grow as a Spanish speaker. All of my classes were in Spanish and I got the opportunity to take a course at the local university. Additionally, I loved that the program took care of all the logistical steps that came with being abroad. I did not want to be concerned about finding my own housing or being lost in the mess of class registration as an international student and IES took care of everything so that the students could really just focus on getting the most out of their abroad experience. The staff were always available to help if you needed anything or for emergencies, but they also encouraged independence and individual exploration. I also made sure that all the classes that I would be taking would count towards my Global Studies major requirements so that I would still be able to graduate on time despite the number of classes I had left to take. It was an overall great program with great support which they showed to us even before we ever stepped on a plane.


What did you learn about yourself?
The biggest thing I learned from being abroad was: Here. Now. This. It was pretty much all about living in the present. The semester before I went abroad, all I could think about was getting through the semester so I can start my abroad journey, and I was absolutely miserable. Now that definitely could have been because I was taking 18 credits including 2 labs and orgo, but I also think it was because I never stayed in the present and was always looking towards the next thing. When I finally got to Spain, I promised myself that I would forget about the future and live in the moment. It made everything so much more enjoyable and now looking back, the memories are much sweeter. It was a huge help that I made amazing friends from my program who believed in the same thing. It also made the simple things like eating dinner in the park under the sun feel like the most exciting event of the year.


What is one of your favorite memories from your program?
One of the things that I absolutely loved about my program was meeting people who were just as excited about being abroad as I was. Every person that I met was always planning an adventure, whether that was to visit a different part of Spain, or to travel to a different country altogether. Because of that, I got to take tons of trips with the friends I made in the program. By the end of the program, I had visited so many cities with people that were strangers a few months back and were now considered close friends. About a week before the program ended and finals begun, all the friends I made in the dorm decided to take a trip down to the beach in Nerja for the weekend. Despite the bus ride being 7 long hours, we all entertained each other and planned the events for the weekend. It was one of the best weekends of my life. By that point, we had all become extremely close and had so many memories to look back on together. Additionally, it was a great opportunity to spend our last days together reflecting on our time abroad. We stayed up late playing card games and hearing the waves crash against the rocks on the beach not too far away. We got to enjoy every little moment on that trip and it was the best way to close out our time together in the magic that we discovered in Spain.


What advice do you have for future study abroad students?
My biggest advice for students is to not be afraid of being uncomfortable. I know it seems cliché that everyone who comes back from abroad is somehow "changed" and "different" but it truly is transformative when you are constantly put in uncomfortable situations. Parts of abroad are going to feel like a real culture shock. I was devastated at the fact that I couldn't have chipotle for months. Constantly having to speak in a language that is not your first language is uncomfortable, and even exhausting at first. However, none of these, and any other uncertainties you will face, are bad things. These are simply fueling your growth, creativity, and problem solving. It is easy to stay where you have always been, do what you have always been comfortable with, and live how you have always lived, but sometimes hard is worth it. Although I can't guarantee that uncertainties will come, I can guarantee that with the right support, working through them will be so worth it.


How do you identify?
Student of color, Scholarship Recipient


Could you share any experiences where your identity played a role in your time abroad?
Every. Single. Day. Madrid is not the most diverse city in the world so getting stared at was a daily occurance. It changed me so much the first time I wrote my college essay on getting stared at while on the metro in Madrid. It is true that being Black and just traveling abroad in general is very nerve wracking, however with the proper research and support system, you can still have a wonderful time. In addition, despite my fears, I still met incredible people and saw many incredible places. I just had to make sure that I was on high alert and watched videos from Black creators that had already visited the places I wanted to go to as well as look into blogs and take suggestions from Black influencers as well as friends and family. Now that I have gone to all these places and experienced what it is like being a Black woman in Madrid for a long period of time, I feel as though I am equip to help others that were just like me.


Is there any advice you would give to other students who share your identity?
Do your research. It is the sad reality that there are many places in Spain and Europe that are not welcoming to Black folks. It is true that you will get stared at and may not get the best customer service or assistance when you need it. However, it is also true that despite all that there are many places that are safe for Black students and students of color. There are also programs that have internal affairs to help you navigate any anxieties or actual issue that might arise while you're abroad. And most importantly, though it might seem like it, you are never alone. When you are constantly surrounded by people who do not look like you, it can feel alienating and lonely, but there are so many people that will have your back at home and while you're abroad.


If you faced any challenges abroad, where could you turn to get the support you needed?
In high school, my host family was always a great channel of support whenever I had any challenges being Black in Madrid. With IES, they made sure we were all very prepared for what was to come before we even landed in Madrid and then we had orientation right when we landed as well. In addition, there was constant communication between staff and students and there were weekly online check-ins that you could communicate your concerns to staff members and someone would contact you about anything. IES made sure that our identities were protected and helped us navigate through our experience with them.