Posted on Sep 06, 2023
As I prepare for the start of my senior year this Wednesday, I am reminded of doing the same only a year ago in Spain.
(This is a MUST READ!) 

This is a message from Rebecca Conrad, former RYE student, who studied in Madrid, Spain. 

Last year I left my comfort zone to study abroad, and it has been the most rewarding risk I have ever taken, I couldn't be more grateful to Rotary Youth Exchange for facilitating me to do it. 

Upon arriving in my host country, I was welcomed by the warmhearted and personal culture shared among the Spanish. I didn't know it was possible to grow so close to people who lived lives so different from mine, because those people who I once thought of as strangers, became my closest friends and family. It was my host family who first embraced me at the airport, and from that moment on we haven’t stopped connecting with each other. I had two host families, switching in February, and both graciously included me in every family reunion, friend gathering, and excursion they had. I remember my host dad inviting me to the cove to do his favorite hobby: sea kayaking (a sport I had previously never tried and will never say is easy again). Even though I tipped more than kayaked, I loved trying an activity I had never heard of, but most of all, I loved that my host dad wanted to share with me a part of his life that is so special to him. My host families worked hard to not just invite me into their homes, but their lives. I accompanied my first host family to a Christmas family reunion in the chilly mountain peaks of Madrid. I sang, danced, and played with at least 50 members of the most talented, intelligent, hilarious, energetic, and vibrant family that I had ever met. I feel blessed to have participated with them in traditions such as roasting chestnuts over the fire, caroling in the family choir, and joining in the sobremesa (a playful conversation held after a meal). Every family member, classmate, and Rotarian I met has shared a part of their life with me. I loved not only living in the Spanish culture from varying perspectives but living with people who I consider as true family. 

I developed a new perspective towards strangers based on how warmheartedly, not only my host parents, but my entire host community accepted me. So many people came into my life (mainly with a hug and two kisses on the cheek; the typical Spanish greeting) and bettered it. One special person is my best friend, Nerea, who I met in contemporary ballet class. She taught me the necessity of acknowledging our negative traits to work on them and self-betterment. I have never thought to do something like that, and it felt that each day, each person I talked to also showed me a new lens to view life through. Another person, my History of Art teacher, Ferran, redefined what curiosity is to me through the way that he so passionately teaches, no matter the topic. I adored his class, and many other classes unavailable in my high school in the United States, such as philosophy, and religion. Each day felt like a precious gift to learn about anything I was interested in, etymology (specifically Latin roots), Flemish renaissance paintings, and European history to name a few. For every question I had, he encouraged me to ask 10 more. His "History of Art class" felt more like a discussion club, where any risen topic was an opportunity to learn. From him, I now view curiosity as something you can indulge in (like my favorite Spanish dessert, Torrejas) and still hunger for after. 

I developed a similar hunger for a lot of the activities I participated in while in Spain, such as learning Castilian in a 9-month language night school full of people from every corner of the world. It amplified my passion for language, for bettering my skills as a global citizen, and for connecting with others. I had to start at the very beginning, A-1 Spanish classes, but within a week I moved to A-2. In the name of following the system, I wasn’t allowed to pass classes without staying the entire year, but my teacher allowed me to also attend B-1 classes as long as I didn’t take the exams. I cherished every minute of it! My three notebooks are packed full of all the lessons, new words, names, and facts I learned during my stay. I love learning Spanish, so after taking such intense lessons through the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (Official School of Languages) and Ferran, I aspire to further my education in languages. By the end of the year, I was at a level B-1.5 in Spanish. Though, as I am currently focused on re-learning English for the ACT,  I’m more of an A-2. After the ACT this September, I hope to restart my Spanish lessons and possibly add another language.

School in Spain was full of learning opportunities, everything from speaking in the LGBTQ+ club to listening to my classmates. I saw every moment as a gift to experience and a lesson I can grow from, I didn't want to take a single day for granted (even the one where I had to skip school to work on VISA problems). I loved talking with everyone, teachers, staff, and students alike. Everyone was so kind and understanding, especially on the first day when I cluelessly wandered the halls trying to find my class, and a group of girls, who became my friends, walked me to it. It also turns out that classes are different in Spain, instead of choosing classes, a student chooses their profession, which dictates which classes they take. 

My benevolent host parents even included me in many activities. We traveled to places like Granada, walking through the majestic walls of Alhambra, and Madrid, and watching contemporary dance performances in Teatros del Canal. Alhambra was by far the most breathtaking haven I have ever witnessed (to say it's a building would be an understatement) I was fascinated by the history of Arabic and Spanish ties leading to its creation; a war over religion and land. I witnessed firsthand how and why the Arabics have a huge influence on modern Spain. The Alhambra is as rich and gorgeous in its story as its exterior.

I also loved getting involved with my Rotary club, each month we met to give an update on our journeys and to contribute back to the community hosting us. My favorite volunteer projects were those that involved Denia's stunning beach, trash pick-up days, and 5ks for cancer. I also liked to volunteer outside of Rotary, I held language lessons for kids and translation services at the hospital, through my host mother. 

I struggle to explain in any language just how life-changing it was (and is) to explore beyond my domestic perspective, viewing life through diverse cultures, languages, and communities. Honestly, it was challenging, to learn the language, to participate in the culture, and to meet the people, but it was just as enriching and positive. I viewed each language error, cultural misinterpretation, and “dumb-American” moment as an area for growth because I was forming new ways of thinking, interacting, and living. 

I think that these are values that prospective RYE students should consider as they apply, being flexible and finding purpose within it, being open-minded, and above all, loving the people and community they are in. I want other students to take advantage of (realistically) every moment, connection, and opportunity that comes along with an exchange. Also, bring measuring cups, I myself didn't listen but I paid the price (literally, I had to buy measuring cups in Spain)!

Now that I am back home and debriefing my year, I hope to study social work and ways to help refugees and immigrants. I was among the majority in the United States, but in Spain, I was a minority. This experience has been fundamental for me to understand others. I believe that challenging yourself in this way replaces prejudice with empathy, fear with aspiration, and misunderstanding with knowledge. I want to help others. As my credits from classes in Spain will not transfer, I will finish my senior semester at Mount Vernon High School, and plan to study as a non-degree student my second semester. After graduation, I hope to attend university (ideally, the University of Chicago) and, as always, continue exploring and expanding.



Rebecca will present to our club on Wed, Sept 27. You are HIGHLY ENCOURAGED to attend this meeting to hear more about Rebecca's life-changing experience. 

Shores Event Center
700 16th St NE L100
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402

5:30 - 6:00pm : Social
6:00 - 6:30pm : Speaker