Kevin Vrla - 2015 Program Participant

Ocean view in Lagos, Portugal
A picture of the sea down in Lagos

What inspired you to go abroad?

I wanted to experience a semester abroad to expand my educational background and to see more of the world.

Why did you choose to study abroad in Portugal?

I chose Portugal specifically because I studied Portuguese at my home university and I knew that the benefits of spending a semester in a country where the language was spoken would be beyond measure.

What made your experience of study abroad unique?

The size of the program definitely made the experience unique. There were only fifteen students, whereas many programs have fifty or more. I not only made deep lasting connections with the other students, but also with the directors, Sara and Luisa. Also, due to the small size we were able to truly immerse ourselves in the culture and make connections with Portuguese students.

How did the local staff support you throughout your program?

Sara and Luisa were indispensable, and without them, the program would not have been as amazing as it was. They went out of their way to provide us with anything we needed and to help us when we were in sticky situations. They truly cared about us and our experiences, and they did everything they could to support us and help us grow. Without a doubt, they were the pinnacle of an already enjoyable experience.

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

My host mom was wonderful. She was a chef, so she was always cooking authentic Portuguese dishes that turned out amazing. Her apartment was small, but it was very homey and I always felt welcome. The best part about it was its central location; it was perfectly situated between major metro lines and I was able to easily get all over the city from there.

What surprised you most about Lisbon?

I was, and still am surprised about the accessibility of Lisbon. I could get to any portion of the city on public transit, and after a few weeks I was able to navigate the city unassisted. Walking, metro, and buses took me anywhere I needed to go in a very short amount of time, something my own city does not offer.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

On a normal day, I would wake up and walk to campus. I lived the closest to campus, so it usually took me five minutes to walk there. I would spend the day in classes both with other student in my program and also regular Portuguese students. Many of the other American students had similar schedules to me, so we were able to go on excursions together after class. Most afternoons were spent in some part of Lisbon with my friends exploring. In the evening, I would have dinner with my host mom, then perhaps go out again with my friends depending on the night.

Dom Luis Bridge in Porto, Portugal
One of the many bridges and boats in Porto

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

I loved exploring new parts of Lisbon and the surrounding cities, both on my own and with other people. I loved being able to take the train to Cascais, Sintra, or Setubal and discover new things about the area and about Portuguese culture.

What was your favorite part about Lisbon?

What I liked most about Lisbon was how accessible it was. I could get to any part of the city and find something new to explore. It always felt open and welcoming.

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

The program is small, but that only elevates the experience. For many people, Portuguese culture is strange, but the Portuguese are also very welcoming to strangers and love to share their lives and experiences.

I would urge people to not turn away from the strange customs or food, but to take everything in stride and enjoy all of the new wonders that you get to behold.

How difficult was it to communicate with locals?

Initially, speaking to locals was difficult. Even though I had studied Portuguese for years, I was accustomed to Brazilian Portuguese. The differences between the dialects are considerable, and even Brazilians occasionally have trouble speaking to the Portuguese. Everyone is friendly though and most of the Portuguese speak English, so I was still able to communicate with people while I adjusted to the local dialect.

What was the hardest part about studying abroad?

The hardest part about studying abroad was trying to make Lisbon home. Living in a homestay was a great experience, but I was always aware that I was in someone else's home and that I was a temporary guest. It took several weeks before I began to feel like my homestay and Lisbon were home. After the initial adjustment period, I quickly came to identify Lisbon as home as I did more travelling.

Is there anything you wish you would have done differently?

The only thing I wish I had done differently would be to have taken advantage of my unique situation more and to explore more of Portugal outside of Lisbon, and also to travel to other countries.

What is one thing you wish you would have known before studying abroad in Portugal?

Before going to Portugal, I wish someone had of told me how stubborn the Portuguese can be. There were many situations where Portuguese officials would drag their feet and refuse to take a firm stance. One such situation was with my medication. I was having my mother send my medication to me, but randomly the last box was denied. They would not give us a firm answer and claimed they had sent it back, but it never arrived back in America. If it weren't for Sara and Luisa, these situations would have been much more stressful and disastrous.

Cabo da Roca
Cabo da Roca - The westernmost point of continental Europe

Do you have any packing tips for students headed to Lisbon?

Despite its coastal semi-Mediterranean geography, Lisbon is not always warm. While drastically milder than Minnesota, winter in Lisbon was cold and damp, exacerbated by the fact that most buildings are not heated. I would suggest anyone spending time in Lisbon in the winter to bring warm clothes; heavy coats are not necessary, but one good jacket and some thick shirts are mandatory. Of course, once spring and summer hit it's gorgeous and warm, but as in winter it can be deceptively chilly with rain and cold ocean winds.

Now that you're home, how has your time in Portugal impacted your life?

My time abroad completely changed my life. Due to the six months I was abroad, I have an tireless urge to travel and to see the world. When I was abroad I was always seeing and feeling something new, and now I crave that adventure all the time. I have a desire to travel that was stimulated, and now I have the experience to feel comfortable in several situations that arose during my time in Lisbon.

What do you feel the biggest benefit of studying abroad is?

The biggest benefit of studying abroad is that it puts you out of your comfort zone. For many people, this often uncomfortable fact ruins a study abroad experience as it did for one of the students I was with. But this is an integral and important part of the journey.

You have to feel out of your element so that you can grow and experience things you never would in your bubble. You have to throw caution to the wind and allow the path to unfold before you.

I had to let go of my perceptions of control so that I could experience every aspect of my time abroad, the good and the bad, and to grow in ways that I never thought possible. Many people ignore this and instead stay within their strict borders, never allowing the unique opportunity they've been given to enter their lives.

Would you recommend your program to others? Why?

I would absolutely recommend my program to others. Portugal is a frequently overlooked country due to its size and association with Spain. People assume that it has nothing to offer, an opinion which is absolutely false. Portugal is varied and unique and has a distinct culture and atmosphere that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

If you could study abroad again, where would you go?

If I could study abroad again, I most likely would go to the British isles, either Wales or Scotland, or to Asia, most likely Japan or Korea. I had the opportunity to visit Scotland when I was in Europe and I was enamored immediately. Asia has long been a destination for me as well.