FitzSimons, Katherine C., Graduate Student, B.A. Spanish, Journalism

Name: FitzSimons, Katherine C.
Title: Graduate Student, B.A. Spanish, Journalism
Company/Organization/University: University of Southern California

"Before studying abroad, I had never been away from home-alone-for more than a week’s time. I did not go to camp as a child, I did not move away from home in order to attend college, and I had never lived abroad. My only international experience had been short family vacations. Obviously, studying abroad was a huge step-and change-for me because I was pretty sheltered growing up. The world outside of the U.S. was new to me and very exciting; I felt like a modern-day explorer or adventurer setting out to really live life and literally see the world.

It may sound ridiculous, but I was so proud of myself for being able to ‘make it’ on my own abroad-for being competent enough to perform even simple, daily tasks like going to the market, using public transportation, and navigating through the city without getting lost. The sense of independence I felt abroad boosted my self-confidence tremendously. I wasn’t failing or floundering, rather I was living, studying, traveling and exploring safely and successfully all on my own. I was actually thriving in another country, in another culture, and in another language.

Travel also greatly helped me grow and become more independent. Travel makes up a large part of study abroad, as it opens one up to new places, people and ideas. Travel is the adventure part of study abroad, where what you learn in the classroom comes to life and is put into practice. Travel also requires adaptation and tolerance; one must not only adapt to foreign environments, lifestyles, and customs, but also tolerate those encountered differences and work toward seeing them in a more positive light.

I frequently traveled alone in Spain and to other European, and Scandinavian countries. I also traveled to Morocco in North Africa. My travel experiences let me get to know myself better, while getting to know the Spaniards and internationals I met along the way. It was challenging to travel on my own, but I feel stronger and well rounded for having done it. I hope I have become a more tolerant person who finds difference not “bad,” but rather just different and interesting.

Living and learning in the Basque country of Northern Spain, I was fortunate enough to not only improve my Spanish skills, but also to learn a bit of the Basque language as well. Where I studied, the majority of public signs were bilingual-they were printed in both Castilian Spanish and the Basque language. Euskara is a very difficult language to master. However, in my Basque culture class I was exposed to vocabulary words, media sources, and music in Euskara. Daily-on the street, on the metro, at the supermarket-I was also exposed to Euskara. Living in an international dorm, I heard Euskara spoken by students in the halls of my residence, at the dinner table, and during social activities. By studying abroad in the Basque country, I feel as though I received a duel education; I improved my Spanish immensely, while beginning to learn an ancient language about which I had previously known nothing. I had never expected to learn two languages, or learn about two distinct cultures in the same city. This added bonus to studying abroad truly persuaded me to appreciate Spain’s diversity-a type of diversity I would not have guessed existed outside my own diverse home of Los Angeles.

As a native and resident of Los Angeles, I use my Spanish regularly; it has proven to be a tremendous asset and advantage-not only with my personal acquaintances, but also in the working world. Because of my study abroad experience in Spain, I can now communicate, work, and make friends with a much broader population of people, and I can make others feel more comfortable by interacting with them in their native language-Spanish. At home, I watch Spanish-language television. In the car, I listen to Spanish-language radio. At work, I use Spanish with co-workers and to translate useful Spanish materials into English ones.

Aside from the benefits of learning, practicing and using Spanish with native Spanish-speakers in Spain, I also learned how closely language could be tied to culture. While learning about Spanish history and culture, I became aware of the great Roman and Arab influences and legacies woven into modern-day Spanish culture. I visited and marveled at Roman monuments like the aqueduct in Segovia, and Arab architecture in Andalusia. I felt as though I was living history. The interactive learning experience of visiting historical and cultural places about which you have studied really helped immerse me in Spanish culture. Just by exploring these historic sites, I felt better educated, and more cultured. I understood and was in-tune with Spanish culture-a culture into which I was trying to assimilate during my months abroad.

In addition to Spanish culture, my eyes were opened to the unique and rich Basque culture. In my Basque culture classes, I learned that many anthropologists believe Basques represent the oldest tribe of Western Europe. Many modern-day Basques do not speak Castilian Spanish; they speak a non-Latin based language (Euskara), and retain a certain level of political autonomy. Learning about Basque history and identity, as well as living with the Spanish-Basque people, helped me to become more aware of a culture about which I previously knew nothing. Again, the interactive learning experience of actually living, seeing and breathing Basque culture every day, while also studying about in class, greatly broadened my study abroad experience.

Learning about Spanish and Basque culture, and traveling around Europe, led me to discover more about European culture in general. This culture-learning was reinforced in class: In my class about the European Union, I gained tremendous insight into the inspiration and workings of the E.U., of which Spain is a member. I became much more aware of European and world affairs. The similarities and differences between the U.S. and European political systems fascinated me. In fact, as part of a class ‘field trip,’ I went to Brussels, Belgium for a tour of the European Parliament. I can’t believe going from Spain to Belgium was considered a ‘field trip’!

In addition to being a patriotic American, I began to feel proud of my European heritage as well. As an Irish-American, learning about the E.U. bridged a personal culture gap; it opened up an entire new realm of interests for me. Through studying about the E.U. in Spain, I developed an increased curiosity about my own roots and about Irish history, politics and culture in general. As both Spain and Ireland are member nations in the E.U., I felt a certain duty to keep up on the current affairs of both countries. Also, after seeing the European Parliament in action in Brussels, I realized I might be able to work for the E.U. because I have both an U.S. and an Irish passport. It was inspiring to witness the workings of the E.U.; it encouraged me to take greater interest in Ireland, Spain and other member nations, and it open my mind to the future possibilities of working for and living in the E.U. Had I never studied abroad, I might have never understood the importance of the relationship between the U.S. and the E.U., and I might have never discovered my pride in being an Irish-American.

I had never really been interested in politics before learning about the E.U. Besides E.U. politics, I also became interested in regional Basque politics-for the turbulent world of Basque politics surrounded me daily. In the Basque country, I realized politics were often underscored by terrorism.

Before studying abroad, I didn’t know anything about the Basque separatist group ETA. While living in the Basque country, I came to better understand both sides of the complicated and sensitive, pro-ETA and anti-ETA conflict. I lived in a region of Spain where the threat of an ETA terrorist attack was a daily, ever-present fear. This made me more grateful to live in the U.S. where-at the time-I did not live with a constant fear of the possibility of terrorist attacks.

After September 11, I was better able to sympathize with the victims of ETA’s attacks, and I came to understand that the U.S. has a lot more in common with Spain than I once thought. My experience abroad in the Basque country helped me to realize that security and terrorism are international issues that affect the lives of not just Basques, Spaniards and Americans, but those in all other countries.

In short, my study abroad experience afforded me the opportunity to learn as much outside of the classroom as in it. There is nothing better than learning something out of a textbook, and then going out and seeing the very thing about which you have been learning. Study abroad enhances your academic experience because you live what you are learning. This type of immersion proves to be one of the best ways to learn, and to forever remember and retain what you have learned.

For instance, many know about the Basques’ historical struggle thanks to Picasso’s famous painting Guernica, which hangs at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. After learning about Basque history, culture, and politics in class, and living with Basques outside of class, I visited Madrid and saw Picasso’s Guernica --no longer a picture in my textbook, but the real thing right in front of me. The textbook just didn’t do it justice!

After my time abroad in Spain, I realized living and working abroad sounded like a perfect career goal for me. I had been ‘bitten by the study abroad bug,’ and wanted nothing more than to go abroad again. I fell so in love with Spanish culture, and found Spanish so useful, that I decided to major in Spanish. I also found Basque culture so unique and fascinating that I decided to minor in Cultural Anthropology. To facilitate my desire to work abroad, I finished a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and another in Journalism, with a minor in Cultural Anthropology.

Using my degrees, and my international experience gained from studying abroad, I hope to join the U.S. Foreign Service. As a Foreign Service officer, I will be sent on missions-as a representative of the United States-to work in embassies and consulates worldwide. I will have the valuable and rare opportunity to continue my international/intercultural education throughout my entire career. Study abroad inspired me to want to become a Foreign Service officer because I find nothing more exciting, educational, or interesting as living in a foreign country and being surrounded by international peers. My study abroad experiences ignited a passion to work abroad. I now have an international focus, purpose, and career objective I might not otherwise have had. I feel as though study abroad has opened the doors to a very exciting future-a career in the Foreign Service."