Maddi Lee - 2014 Program Participant
Plaza San Martín during World Cup Semi-Final Screening.
Why did you choose to study abroad while in high school?
I wanted to study abroad because it just sounded like a really rewarding and fresh experience to have--plus, I'd heard that language immersion would help a lot in my Advanced Spanish classes back here in California. I'm always up for adventure, though it took a lot of persistence and persuasion for my parents to be equally on board.
Interesting graffiti in Colonia, Argentina during one of the Sol excursions.
What made you select Argentina?
I've been blessed to have traveled all my life (boarded my first plane when I was one), but I'd never stepped foot in South America. I really wanted to immerse myself in an entirely new setting, and Argentina really appealed to me. The culture was beautiful and passionate, the food was strongly influenced by Italy, and the accents were gorgeous...I was choosing between Spain and Argentina, and I'm so glad I chose the latter--especially in light of the World Cup. Being in Spain during the World Cup would've been downright depressing.
Why did you choose Sol Abroad over other high school study abroad providers?
A representative came over to my Spanish three classroom during sophomore year, and I was dead-set on going. It took a year to convince my parents and fundraise enough money to go, but it was well-worth it. Sol Abroad was a lot cheaper in comparison to some other programs on the market, so it wasn't nearly as difficult to find the money to afford it.
What were your housing arrangements like while studying in Argentina?
I lived in a cozy apartment with my adorable host grandmother, Teresa. I was supposed to have a roommate at first, but she had to go home after a couple weeks, so it ended up being just me, Teresa, and a music teacher who was living temporarily in Argentina. I had a bedroom to myself and shared a bathroom with the others. Wi-fi was normally present, though there were occasional glitches.
Part of Maddi’s room in Buenos Aires--closet, tons of books in Spanish, comfy bed.
At first, I was a bit jealous of some other kids in my program who were living with families with babies and pregnant dogs (which gave birth during the program!), but looking back on my experience, and I'm grateful I lived with such a wonderful lady. We had lots of interesting conversations, and she was always very willing to help. The apartment was only a few blocks away from the subte (subway), and only 10 or so blocks away from a very large commercial area.
What was a normal day like for you in Buenos Aires?
On an average weekday, I'd wake up pretty early, around 7 a.m.; got ready; make some breakfast (or sometimes bought one at a nearby café) walk to the subway; and ride to my school stop. Then I'd walk to school and take classes until around noon. We'd have lunch at a nearby café, then wait for our program director to pick us up for a cultural activity. This really varied because sometimes there would be no activity planned, and we'd be free to roam and do our own thing. Cultural activities, when planned, could last anywhere from one hour to a few. We could get back at 6 p.m. or 10 p.m. at night. There was always a curfew in place, but for the most part, we had a lot of freedom. Some of us even planned our own field trips of sorts to Chinatown or La Casa Rosada or just our local Freddo's, which sells the best gelato ever. There were always some sort of weekend excursions, which really varied a lot. There wasn't a "typical" weekend schedule because each weekend was very different.
What was the most memorable experience you had during your time in Argentina?
Definitely the World Cup! The group ended up watching the big semifinal game in Plaza San Martín on the big projector screen. We watched Argentina make it to the World Cup finals through penalty kicks. It was, in short, AMAZING. The patriotism, the spirit, the Messi Fever...everything was so inspiring and so new for me, as someone who hardly ever watches sports. We watched games in cafés, in ice cream parlors, in our homes, etc.
On the day that Germany beat Brazil 7-1, we saw people lining the streets everywhere watching the game from outside windows. You could say it was a happy moment for Argentina. On the day of the semifinals, random street parades erupted everywhere. People with face paint in blue and white were dancing and singing and celebrating. The energy was contagious.
On the day of the World Cup Final, the air was also taught with energy. Unfortunately, Argentina lost. But had I not watched the game, I would've had no idea they weren't champions. Even after that loss against Germany, people everywhere were in mass celebration--perhaps in a show of gratitude for their team? People poured of of cars and buses singing, "Brasil, Decime Qué Se Siente," a song mocking Brazil. People were beating drums, waving flags, chanting. There were definitely a few people crying on the subway, but the massive amount of positive energy, even after the loss, was overwhelming. A group of us students went to the subway, but they were all closed due to the chaos. We ended up walking toward home until the subways re-opened. Later, we found out that there was lots of crime that went on that night. It was still something I'll never, ever forget, though.
Beautiful streets of Buenos Aires.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as a high school student abroad?
Definitely communication. From the moment I stepped foot on Argentine soil, there were people speaking to me in Spanish. All I could do was smile a little and nod in the airport. It was really confusing at first, especially with the accents. For the longest time, I was convinced the teacher living in our house was named "Asia" because that's what my host grandmother called her. Turned out she was referring to her as "ella" (she), but Argentines pronounced it differently!
I grew up in a quiet suburb, so out in the bustling city I got lost A LOT--especially since I didn't have a roommate in the program to help me around. Because of this, sometimes I had to stop and ask for directions, which was also difficult because I couldn't always understand everything that someone was telling me.
Eventually I did improve. I'm still way below native speaking capacity, but I'm getting there. The classes definitely helped. My host grandmother knew very little English, so I was forced to converse in Spanish during dinnertime. This was a really, really positive part of the program, I think. I learned a lot about my host grandmother and Argentine culture/history through these dinnertime conversations, and they helped improve my speaking ability, as well.
What advice would you give to other high school students interested in studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina?
Be cautious. I didn't lose anything or get anything stolen because I was extremely careful. But, some other friends did have items stolen from them. Make sure to keep your bag with you at all times. Never leave possessions unattended. If you're wearing a backpack, be careful that no one is sneaking out items from behind you. Don't go around carrying a giant map in sketchy neighborhood (because I did this late at night when I was lost in some dark neighborhoods, and I'm lucky nothing bad happened to me).
More than this, though--don't let this fear paralyze you. Don't let fear stop you from wandering the city and exploring all that Buenos Aires has to offer. Go to new places, stop by one of those old bookstores, grab some croissants from random bakeries, go to the street markets, and just immerse yourself in this world! Don't spend too much time with only your American friends. I got to hang out with some Argentine teenagers with a couple others in my group, and it was awesome. Don't just go home after school and lock yourself up until dinner. The only regrets I have now is that I didn't go out even more. I wish I went out every single day, though it took me a while to get comfortable and even find my way home.
Make safe choices, but don't be overly scared. Buenos Aires is full of helpful, genuinely nice people. A lot of sites had warned me about theft/crime in the city, but sometimes it made it out to seem like some an ultra-dangerous place. It probably isn't any more dangerous than big US cities like NYC or LA, so use the same street smarts that you'd employ there. And have fun!
P.S. DRESS WARMLY. I grew up in Southern California and assumed a jacket or sweater would take care of things. I became severely sick and lost my voice entirely. When I asked for directions, my voice legitimately scared some people. I sounded like Yoda with emphysema. Don't underestimate the cold wind and rain. Don't get sick like me and half the group.
What are the top reasons you'd want to go abroad again?
I want to pursue a career in international law, so studying abroad is not only a rewarding experience but tremendously relevant to my life. I'd want to go just to have that wonderful freedom again--that wonderful period of new experiences and life lessons. New sights and smells and tastes. I'm happiest when I'm on another continent, to be honest.
How has your study abroad experience in Argentina impacted your life?
It's made me a lot more comfortable speaking Spanish, and I've also made life-long friends from the program. I was lucky to be part of a program full of really awesome, cool kids who were ready to have fun and grow, both personally and as a Spanish-speaker. I am now a lot more prepared for when I do study abroad again (hopefully in college). I'm also a lot more comfortable with navigating the subway, finding my way around cities, getting through an airport alone, and doing my own laundry.
Gorgeous multi-colored houses in La Boca--the immigrants didn't have enough to paint one building in one color, hence this!
Would you recommend your Sol Abroad program to others?
Yes, I think there's a perfect balance of structure and freedom. You get to take very small classes (mine had three to five people) with awesome teachers and participate in great cultural activities, while still having the free time to explore on your own. You have a lot of independence--navigating from home to school, getting your laundry done, etc., but you also have a ton of support from your group and your guide.
If you could change one thing about your program, what would it be?
I'd like more interaction with native speakers. A lot of the time, I was speaking in English to my group mates, and I feel like we could've learned Spanish a lot faster if we were placed in more situations where we had to converse with Spanish-speakers. One of my favorite activities was meeting a group of Argentine kids learning English. We talked and a lot of us are friends on Facebook now. I wish there was some way Argentine teens could be incorporated into the program on a longer timescale.
If you could go abroad again, where would you go?
If I could go anywhere, I'd probably choose Taiwan because I want to learn Mandarin. Or maybe South Korea to hone my Korean speaking skills.
Did you experience any kind of reverse culture shock when you came back from Argentina?
Oh, yeah, definitely. It's funny, the day after I returned from Argentina, my whole trip felt like a dream, almost. A giant blur. It felt impossible that I'd been living in South America for a month. My mom took me to eat Korean BBQ right after I returned from the airport because I'd been craving some good old-fashioned Korean food, and it felt weird to see my mom order our food in Korean, especially after a month of Argentine Spanish. Later, my mom and I went to a market, and this old man went up to me and asked me something in Korean. I tried to respond, but my mind filled up with only Spanish words! I just sputtered and stared at him. I adjusted quickly back to life, but home in suburban-gated-community-California did seem a bit smaller. One thing's for sure, though: you can't beat California weather!
If you could go on another Sol Abroad program which one would you choose?
If I had to choose from the programs Sol Abroad offers, I'd choose Spain because it looks beautiful, and I've always wanted to go to Spain. I also love how Castilian Spanish sounds, with the lisp and everything.