It is commonly said that great things happen when one leaves their comfort zone. Well, that is exactly what I experienced when participating in the Merida study abroad program. I can say with confidence that it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Being a Spanish major, one would think studying abroad would have been an easy decision. However, to a small-town girl that had never been out of the United States, it was a major adjustment to 1) travel alone (and on an airplane) for the first time, 2) live with someone other than my parents, 3) be away from home for more than a week, 4) do something where I knew no one else who was participating, and 5) eat food that I had never seen, nor heard of before.
One of the most memorable aspects of my experience was the homestay. My roommate, Ellie, and I were treated as part of the family from the time we arrived until the time we left (and then we were told we were welcome to come back). I will never forget the birthday party Mama Melba threw for me, even though we had only been there for a little over a week. Living with a family instead of in a dormitory setting allowed me to 1) practice my Spanish more, and 2) get to know so much more about the culture and traditions both in Merida and in my homestay family.
Throughout the course of my 3-month stay in Merida, I realized that in Mexico, mealtimes are times to spend with family. For my roommate and me, they were times to get to know Mama Melba and her family. Every Sunday, Mama Melba and one of her daughters, Melbi, go out for breakfast. About halfway through the program, Ellie and I started joining them every week, and I found myself looking forward to spending time with them.
During the 3-month program, our group had the opportunity to go on three different excursions outside of Merida, two of which included a few stops at Mayan ruin sites. First, we got to travel to Isla Mujeres, an island just off the coast of Cancun. Some of the clearest water I have ever seen. Second, about halfway through the program, we traveled to San Cristobal de las Casas, which is in the mountains in the State of Chiapas. The culture (and weather) there was much different than that of Merida, and I enjoyed the contrast. And lastly, we were fortunate enough to be able to spend a week in Cuba.
I can say without a doubt that the week in Cuba had the biggest impact on me, personally. It was so incredibly different from the United States, and even Mexico, in essentially every aspect. I learned more in that week about myself and what is truly important than I thought was possible. Our perceptions of what we thought we knew about Cuba and its people contrasted with its reality, something that I was not expecting. It was in Cuba that I met some of the kindest and most interesting people, one of whom has become what I would consider a good friend of mine.
If someone were to ask me what I gained most out of this experience, I would say self-confidence, which is not an answer most people would give. However, for me, going to another country was so far out of my comfort zone that I waited until senior year to do it. Looking back, it was just what I needed to really push me to discover myself and how I can be the best version of myself. Merida is the place to go, especially for someone, such as myself, who has not done much (or any) traveling outside of the United States!
Jordan Eldridge – Fall 2014