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Guest Blogger: Cristina Valdez, Program Assistant at the Study Abroad Office
The semester I spent studying abroad at Uppsala University in Sweden gave me the opportunity to experience the Swedish culture and many of its long lasting student traditions. Uppsala University is world renowned for its strong academics, bustling student-life and other unique characteristics which arguably make it the premier student town in all of Sweden.
One of the most important and cherished parts of the student culture at Uppsala are the “nations.” Now, let me explain. Think of a nation as a mix between a co-ed fraternity and a student union. The nations at Uppsala are named after the thirteen different regional parts of Sweden, or what us Americans would refer to as “counties.” It is entrusted upon the nations to plan a significant portion of the social activities that happen on campus. Each nation has many features, such as a pub, restaurant, a library with study rooms, a cafe with a daily discounted lunches and snacks for students, recreational clubs such as choirs, bands, sports, ski clubs, and a “dance club” night; in which usually the library of the nation building is transformed into a disco. Once you become a member of a nation, you receive a student ID card which gets you into all of the perks your nation has to offer. You might think “hm… that could be exclusive, because what if your friends are in nations different than yours?” But the great thing is, that though you might be a member of a specific nation, you are still allowed to attend any other nation’s club, pub, brunch, or other events. Membership is not mandatory for students, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t join one of these great organizations!
I joined Södermanlands-Nerikes nation (SNerikes, for short), which is the oldest of the thirteen nations and medium in size, hosting around 2,000 members. My nation was quite popular amongst international students, and offered exciting perks such as a cozy pub, a photo club and a dance club on Tuesday nights. Unlike other nations, SNerikes is the only nation at Uppsala University in which the member, if of Swedish descent or nationality, must have a direct bloodline from that region to join! SNerikes was often referred to as “The Pink Castle” — because it truly looked like a pink castle.
During my time in Sweden, SNerikes provided me with many opportunities to get involved. I was even able to work as a waitress in their restaurant, which allowed me to become acquainted with more Swedish students and helped me strengthen intercultural skills when serving patrons. Joining this nation also let me experience a wide range of Swedish traditions and let me make some long lasting friendships. Essentially, being at SNerikes, made me feel at home. No matter what study abroad program you choose, rest assured that there will be plenty of opportunities for you to get involved with the local traditions, culture, and people of the host country. The important thing is to take advantage of those opportunities and deeply immerse yourself. I hope that discovering these qualities during your study abroad experience will also help make you feel at home.
Guest Blogger: Alissa Dappas
When it comes to learning a new language, there is only so much a student can get out of lectures and exams. To truly become proficient, conversation practice is essential. As a Spanish minor, I knew that my study abroad experience had to include as much language immersion as possible if I ever wanted to become a confident Spanish speaker. To achieve maximum language immersion, I decided to attend the study abroad program in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica because of its approved Illinois Spanish-credit classes and most importantly, because all students in the program had to live with a host family. Although I was extremely nervous about the concept of moving in with strangers for four months, I now consider my relationship with my host family to be the most rewarding aspect of my semester in Costa Rica.
Throughout my time spent abroad, my host family was my strongest and always-available support system. No matter what the situation or question, they were the people I turned to for help or guidance. I was lucky to live with a very caring host mom, Patricia, host dad, Ronald, and two younger host sisters, Diana and Priscila. Each member of my family took time to get to know me personally and as the semester went on, I began to realize that I really did consider them to be part of my own family. There was never one specific moment that made me come to this realization; I think it was simply a bunch of small things that built on top of each other. For instance, my host mom and I were normally the only ones around for breakfast, so every morning, I would begin my day by having a conversation with her while helping prepare the food, eating or cleaning the dishes. When my host sisters came back from school, we would play cards together or I would teach them how to do cartwheels in the backyard. We often bonded by talking about things we had in common (a mutual Harry Potter obsession was a hot topic) and laughing at my funny pronunciations of some words. After dinner, my host dad was my go-to person when I wanted to learn more about the Costa Rican government or general Latin American politics. He always seemed to know a bit about both sides of any story and usually knew more about the events or debates going on in the United States than I knew myself. So within this one family unit, I came to know each person as an individual and because of this, I learned more than I ever previously imagined I would. Besides being able to practice my Spanish with a group of people I was comfortable with, I was also able to create lifelong bonds and gain family members that belong to a culture different from my own.
Looking back, all four months with my Costa Rican family summed up to one huge lesson on the importance of time spent together as a family. Culturally, this is where I saw the greatest difference between the United States and Costa Rica. Although many people would argue that the idea of a strong family unit is still very important to most Americans, it would be hard to deny that the family dynamic in the United States is not influenced by parents’ work schedules, sports practices, tutoring, videogames, fast food dinners, etc. In Costa Rica, time spent together comes before most other obligations. And from what I’ve heard and read, it seems like this importance on family time is a central part of Latin American culture as a whole, and not just in Costa Rica. No matter my host parents’ schedules, they always made time each day to make a meal together and sit down as a family for dinner. Most days, the dinner was usually followed by a game played together or a conversation that carried over from the main meal to dessert or coffee. It was during these dinners and late-night conversations that we would discuss our days, hear about any problems my sisters were having at school or learn news about the extended family (who happened to live in all of the surrounding houses). During these moments, I learned more about life and the values of Costa Ricans and my family was able to learn about my life in the United States.
Slowly but surely, my new family impacted me in such a way that I now actively try to apply their family-centered, peaceful mentalities to my own life back in the United States. Not only did my Spanish conversation ability improve, but living with a host family also reopened my eyes to the more important things in life and that above all, the relationships that we have with our friends and family should come before everything else.