Bailey Spalding - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

As a freshman in college, I was tremendously anxious about anything that made me step out of my incredibly small comfort zone. I am from a small, rural hometown, and until moving to my university, I was only accustomed to life there. For me, moving onto my university's campus was a head rush of changing paces, new faces, and feelings of uncertainty about essentially every aspect of freshman year. Said head rush should have been a time of independence, excitement and empowerment, but I let it scare me into a withdrawn, indecisive student. Throughout this confusing time, I saw other students shine in their new environment. Students who were comfortable with the change-up we all faced embraced it as an opportunity to grow. Seeing this made me sad, because I knew I was also once very confident and proactive, and I belonged with those who excelled. But instead of sifting through the unfamiliarity and figuring things out like everyone else, I let all my stresses completely overwhelm me - hence, the tiny comfort zone.

Punta Cometa in Mazunte, Mexico
Spending the weekend with my friends in Punta Cometa was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

During my first year in college, I became stagnant - uninvolved, under-motivated, and passive at best in the organizations I was brave enough to join. After a year of piddling around in my own anxiety, I decided I was tired of letting the acclaimed "best years of my life" pass me by. I wanted to stop just surviving college- I wanted to thrive. It became my most passionate goal to make up for the year of opportunities I had allowed myself to lose. I took steps to dismiss my insecurities and mustered the initiative to turn my attitude toward "newness" around. Doing so, I gained a more meaningful presence on campus by gaining employment in the writing center, I sought out a co-op position in my university's psychology clinic, and I earned an executive council position in my sorority.

I consider one of the scariest decisions I have ever made, the decision that has ultimately turned me into the fearless student I used to aspire to be and the decision that has rewarded my character and perspective beyond words, the decision to study abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Why did you choose Sol Education Abroad?

Once I had committed to studying abroad, I asked every resource I could find for advice- teachers, advisors, the study abroad office, students who had studied abroad in the past. Interestingly, most would mention Sol Education Abroad. My Spanish professor and the study abroad office specifically emphasized that program, claiming it was thorough and helpful. Going through this process with certain anxiety, those were two especially attractive qualities to me. Urged to continue researching the Sol program, I was also attracted by the fact that they strive to offer an authentic cultural experience to students in their Spanish immersion programs by scheduling excursions and cultural activities that support local economies.

Now, since spending four weeks in Oaxaca with Sol, I understand why my university so adamantly recommended the program, and I wholeheartedly agree with every positive review. Furthermore, I can add to it by bragging that those who work at Sol live to assure a positive experience for their students. I don't think the directors consider what they do with Sol as their job; I could tell it was actually their passion to not only share the culture of Oaxaca and Mexico with us, but to encourage us to get just as excited about living it and sharing it.

What was your favorite part about Oaxaca?

Oaxaca, Mexico is an amazing place. In such a culturally rich city, it's hard to pick a favorite part. It could be learning about the diverse indigenous history of the country by walking through ancient ruins, tombs and breath-taking natural and manmade creations. It could be meeting and working with Vida Nueva, a women's cooperative that shook up tradition by replacing a previously male-dominant government with women who work to benefit the well-being of the less fortunate and the natural world. It could be the hiking trip to Hierve El Agua where, despite the heat and mosquitos, we triumphantly scaled a mountain to swim in the peaceful hot springs at the top. It could be our beach trip to Punta Cometa where we snorkeled with dolphins and sea turtles, paddle-boated through crocodile swamps, and watched the sunset from the southernmost tip of North America. It could be the paseo nocturno, the nighttime bike ride with locals around the city behind a mobile deejay, complete with a surprising yet delicious menu item - homemade waffles. It could be the language exchanges with my intercambio, a Mexican student learning English at UABJO who introduced me to local favorites in the city. Or it could be any of the countless indescribable “little things” we took for granted every day as we lived out the Mexican culture.

Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca in Mexico
UABJO was my second home.

But, at the end of the day, I would have to conclude that my favorite part was the time spent and conversations had with my Mexican family and my Sol roommate, Christen. Christen and I ate every meal at home with Hector and Leonarda, our Mexican parents. Leo prepared the food, and presented it to us every day with pride and care. The delicious food and drinks she made, and the loving, concerned manner in which she served us, truly offered a glimpse into the importance that Oaxacans place on family and care for others. Leo's main intention while we stayed in her home was that we were comfortable, happy, well-fed, and of course, keeping up with our studies. She assured all of these things each time we sat down at her table. Oftentimes, we found ourselves talking around the table for hours after we finished eating. Our conversations grew from the check-ins and small talk into in-depth, opinionated discussions encompassing everything from sports to world politics and religion. These conversations allowed Christen and I to truly get to know each other and Hector and Leo so well that we eventually considered each other a family of our own.

It was also during these times that I noticed my own understanding and articulation Spanish improve, as we mulled over abstract concepts and light-hearted moments alike: I remember that Hector enjoyed teaching us common Mexican jokes and phrases, and Leo loved helping us with homework assignments, and giving us mini lessons of her own. I remember the three of us girls would gang up on Hector in debates that would end in fits of laughter. I remember Christen and I making silly vocabulary mistakes that turned into hilarious, ongoing inside jokes between the four of us. I remember Hector and Leo playing pranks on Christen and me when we walked in from school. I remember meeting Hector and Leo’s grandchildren, and learning about the successes of their own children and siblings. I remember coming home from long, hot days and laying in bed with Christen until we heard the most glorious sound of the blender running which meant one important thing – Leo was making us ice cold chocolate milk. I remember Leo surprising us with our favorite United States cuisine at dinner – from fried chicken to hot dogs, but always with a Mexican twist. I remember the moment Leo told us the devastating news that her mother had passed away while she cried in Christen and my arms. Any outsider looking in on that scene would undoubtedly determine that we were a family, despite our different races and backgrounds.

I feel so fortunate to have been able to be a part of Hector and Leo’s life, and to get the chance to appreciate their wisdom and perspective on the world. I still think about them with gratitude daily and anticipate the day in which I can visit them again. I also wouldn’t be lying if I said I miss Leo’s huevos rancheros in the morning or that nightly dose of chocolate milk. It’s safe to say my Mexican family was a huge contributor to the fact that on the morning of my departure flight, I was crying as I hugged my family goodbye because I did not want to leave.

What made your experience abroad unique?

Before this trip, I was ridden with anxiety at the prospect of anything incongruent with what I was used to in my small hometown. I love my roots and where I’m from, but I let my adherence to life in a small town hold me back during a detrimental time of growth in my life. While I was proud of myself for realizing that, and countering it by seeking out a study abroad experience, my initial feelings of excitement slowly turned into more nerves as the trip grew closer. I had never been on a plane. I had never even stepped foot in an airport. I had anxiety about getting lost in George Bush Intercontinental, let alone the foreign country and language I was about to immerse myself into. However, I am happy to say that throughout my time in Oaxaca, my nerves were kept at bay. Not only that, but since then, they have seemingly disappeared, as my eyes have been opened to a whole new world that’s possible when you’re brave, confident, and curious. I hope I never have to muddle through the stagnation I was in before the trip again, and I have my experience abroad to thank for that goal. As I like to tell friends who ask me about my trip – If I could do it, anyone can!

How did the local Sol Education Abroad staff support you throughout your program?

The directors of Sol and the teachers UABJO were wonderful. We had three directors on site for Sol, and they were three of the most adventurous, spunky people I’ve met. They live their lives to spread appreciation for the beauty of life, language, culture and people. The passion they have for their job can only be described as contagious, as I found myself getting more and more excited about Oaxaca with each excursion we went on. Of course, our directors helped with all the big stuff, too – picking us up from the airport, facilitating each trip, accompanying sick students to the doctor, giving the occasional ride home, lending pesos if necessary, being at school every day to offer a familiar face and to answer questions, and tons more behind the scenes that I probably never even saw.

But not only did we go on all the excursions and activities on the Sol schedule with our directors, but it was not uncommon to just hang out with them for fun: I remember Yeyo sat with us by the pool in Punta Cometa, telling stories and jokes while the sun set. Eva would find us eating downtown in the evenings and insist we share all the hot gossip and girl-talk, and Ena would walk around the city with us at night, showing us her favorite shops and restaurants. She even met up with us during our last night in Oaxaca, after a paseo nocturno, to spend the rest of the night and early morning at our favorite coffee shop, sharing laughs about our recently made memories. Knowing our directors liked to spend time getting to know us outside of scheduled activities was very comforting, and it led to some unmatched connections and memories.

In addition, the teachers at UABJO were amazing people. They were young and energetic, and just as interested in learning about our culture as we were theirs. They were patient and adamant about us students leaving their school with improved language skills and appreciation for Mexico. Class was fun – we all made plenty of mistakes every day, but UABJO was a safe-place for that as long as we were working hard to learn. The classroom became another place where inside jokes and memories were born, and unexpected bonds were formed.

International student with homestay parents in Mexico
I love my Mexican parents, Hector and Leo.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

While my Spanish significantly improved because of this trip, it took me about two weeks to become confident enough to fully escape my timidity. I was shy. I was scared of making mistakes. I used my limited background in the language as an excuse. I would let my friends talk to the cab drivers and waiters, and I would never volunteer to speak first. Even at home with Hector and Leo, in the beginning I didn’t speak unless spoken to, because I didn’t want to make silly mistakes. My roommate, who is fluent, often advised me to talk to Hector and Leo more at meal times because she knew that by holding out, I was missing an integral learning opportunity. So she began speaking less around the table, and directing more questions my way, so that I couldn’t use her language skills as a crutch anymore. By the last two weeks, I had become confident enough to speak whenever I wanted, and to communicate my thoughts effectively, unconcerned with the many mistakes I would inevitably make.

I wish I had been confident from the very beginning, and had realized that making mistakes while speaking Spanish is normal and even expected. It’s very silly to hold back just because you’re scared of messing up, because at the end of the day perfection is unrealistic. The teachers, directors, host families, and even the locals realized we were there to learn their language. They knew we would mess up a lot, and they were happy to correct us and teach us. As cliché as it sounds, our mistakes are how we learn. Had I opened myself up to making linguistic mistakes sooner in Oaxaca, I could have learned so much more than I did.

Describe a typical day in the life of a Sol student in Oaxaca.

I woke up around seven o’clock each morning. I would take a quick shower and lay back in bed until Leo called us down for breakfast. My roommate and I operated on the same sleepy-morning schedule, so we almost always ran late, which bothered Leo but also made her laugh at us. There was always coffee and juice waiting for us on the breakfast table. Breakfast was a large meal, which was an adjustment for me. One by one, Leo brought out the dishes for us. Every morning started with a small bowl of assorted fruit, then the main dish which typically consisted of eggs with salsa and ham, fried tortillas covered in black beans, and fresh quesillo. Breakfast was always served with a side of toast, specialty bread from the bakery, or churros.

After finishing breakfast, we made our way out the door and began our walk to school. Each day as we walked, other students living in our neighborhood joined us. Depending on the day, we might stop in a convenient store for a bottle of water, or drop off laundry at the local Laundromat on our way to school. The walk to and from school was just under a mile, and in the morning the weather was mild and pleasant. We had class from 9 a.m. to noon each day, with a thirty-minute break halfway between. During this break, we typically walked to coffee shops, bakeries, or street vendors for refreshments.

After class, we walked home to eat. By noon in Oaxaca, the sun is high and hot, so by the time we made it home we were tired and hungry. Leo gave us a few minutes to wash up in our rooms before sitting down for comida, the huge, Mexican meal equivalent to lunch. Leo always made a special drink for comida, whether it was jamaica, horchata, lemonade or orange Kool-Aid. Comida always consisted of a plate full of large helpings of meat and vegetables, or traditional Mexican dishes, a bowl of hot soup made from various vegetables, sides of warm tortillas, toast or specialty bread from the bakery, and ALWAYS ended with a small bowl of ice cream.

What I love about the food in Oaxaca is that it’s all fresh – the meat and veggies came from the market the day Leo cooked them. The bread and tortillas came freshly baked from the bakery every few days. Very rarely did I see packaged, preserved, frozen, or fast food, which is a big change-up from the typical United States diet.

Depending on the day, the early afternoon could either consist of a much-appreciated siesta, a meeting at UABJO with our classmates and directors, or a language exchange with our intercambios. Intercambios were local students at UABJO who were learning to speak English. My intercambio showed me amazing parts of the city – local favorites I would’ve missed without her. I spoke to her in Spanish and she spoke to me in English as we strolled through local markets, churches and restaurants. Other intercambios went to dances, sporting events, and parades together. It was a very unique experience and I’m thankful to have made a local Oaxacan friend.

Sol usually had cultural activities scheduled for us in the late afternoon ranging from traditional cooking classes, salsa classes, museum visits, yoga, or volunteer opportunities. After these activities we usually returned home for a light supper, chocolate milk and quality time with Hector and Leo. At night, if we weren’t working on homework assignments, we returned downtown to shop in the markets, lounge at rooftop restaurants, see live music playing in the bars, visit our favorite coffee shops, or simply walk through the streets and enjoy the bustling culture of Oaxaca.

View of Oaxaca, Mexico
My intercambio took me to a local market, bought me Jamaica, and showed me an amazing view of the city.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

I am thankful that Sol offered a very full schedule of cultural activities to enjoy. This limited our free time, but introduced us to things we probably wouldn’t have found on our own. If I had free time, I was probably at home spending time with my roommate-turned-best-friend, being lazy in our rooms, sharing gossip from home, telling each other about our lives, or just joking around.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it? 

My accommodation was my favorite part of my experience. I stayed in a two-story home with a couple named Hector and Leonarda, and a roommate from Sol named Christen. Leo cooked us three meals a day and assured we were happy and comfortable in her home. As I said earlier, the time I spent with my host family and roommate was my favorite part of my experience abroad. It is where my Spanish listening and speaking skills improved the most, where I made the best memories and relationships of my month abroad, and where I got to experience the most raw Mexican culture.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

You should know you're about to set foot into a very different lifestyle than what you’re used to. Culture shock is real. You can waste time complaining about the scarce water supply, the heat, the mosquitoes, the impossible traffic, the change in diet, or many other things you may not be used to, but they are all going to be a part of your life until you leave. These are all aspects of the Mexican way of life, and that’s what you agree to be a part of when you sign up with Sol. You should be prepared for these cultural differences, but do not let them have a negative impact on your stay in Oaxaca. Instead, embrace them during your short stay so you can experience the different culture in full.

Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?

I scheduled my trip abroad as the last mode of attack to combat a year’s worth of anxiety. What started as just another source of nerves and stress ended as the best thing I ever could have done for myself. My anxiety as a student has subsided, and I’m thankful to now possess confidence and direction in my life. Not only did my time abroad open my eyes to a world of possibilities for myself, but it awakened me to issues in our global society: this big world gets smaller every day, and we all have the capability to strengthen the bonds and communication between cultures and peoples. In the midst of so much controversy surrounding foreign policy in the US, it is truly the individual's responsibility to get out there and forge positive paths, and create favorable connections between our culture and the next. The rewards of doing so are indescribable, so I highly encourage every college student to broaden their cultural horizons in whatever way they can.

Would you recommend Sol Education Abroad to others? Why?

I would, and I do. Sol is amazing and Oaxaca is beautiful in so many ways. I am already helping two fellow students to plan their trips with Sol, and I’m happy to be an influencing factor on an experience that will hopefully impact them as much as it has me!