May 06, 2020
For an insider’s view into Ayodele’s experience abroad, check out her video, Live The Experience, Cordoba, Spain.
My name is Ayodele, and I am an Environmental Studies major with a concentration in global environmental justice. In the Winter quarter of 2020, I studied In Córdoba Spain. I am an African American Muslim woman; an identity not commonly encountered while walking around Andalucia, Spain. On top of that, I’m kind of tall so when I first arrived in my host community and got off the train in Córdoba, everyone and their grandmothers stared at me, which I am used to, but it just felt different being in a foreign country. So, why was I in this medium-sized Andalusian town in southern Spain?
It all started in 2017 when I saved over the summer for my mom and me to go on a two-week trip to Europe. It wasn’t our first time out of the U.S. but it was our first time overseas. On this trip, we went to London, Paris, and Amsterdam. It only took two weeks for me to decide that I wanted to study abroad. That fall at OPERS Fest, I went to the Study Abroad table and found out about the different opportunities available for UC students. They explained that I needed to talk with my academic and major advisor in addition to the study abroad advisors. That fall was a big transition time for me and my interest in studying abroad took a back seat as I got involved with clubs and extracurriculars on campus.
I was reminded during my sophomore year of how much I loved to travel when I was able to go to Morocco and Rome with my family over winter break. When I returned to campus, I immediately started asking my friends if they had studied abroad or if they knew anyone who had. Although some of them expressed interest, none of them had actually studied abroad. In fact, the participation of ABC students in study abroad programs has been historically disproportionate with only a mere 6% of ABC students participating nationwide.
Eventually, I scheduled a few meetings with study abroad advisors and narrowed down potential study abroad locations, I decided on Córdoba, Spain, for three main reasons. The first, and probably most important reason, was the rich cultural and religious history of Islam in Andalucia. As a Muslim, I really wanted to visit the iconic mosques and castles that were remnants from the Muslim Empire. The second reason was to improve my Spanish. I studied AP Spanish in high school but stopped in college, so I wanted a program that re-introduced me to the Spanish language but had no minimum language requirement to apply. Third, was the duration of the program. I had a hard time convincing my mom to let me study abroad in the first place so it helped that I was only going to be gone for three months rather than six months or more.
Studying abroad was an important experience for me because it got me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to experience new cultures and customs. Although it was difficult adjusting to certain aspects of life, such as living with a host family and understanding how siestas work, I found that after a couple of weeks I felt more comfortable. My host family only consisted of my host mom, Antonia. She was in her late 50’s and had two adult daughters who didn’t live with her. It was a difficult transition because although I am pretty comfortable speaking Spanish, the Andalucian accent takes some getting used to. It was also interesting navigating my identity as a black Muslim woman. Antonia never explicitly asked me my religion but she did ask if my mother was Indian (my mom is African-American). I did my best to explain the transatlantic slave trade but I think I ended up saying “Ella es Negra” (my mom is Black) and that was it. So, every day at lunchtime (2:30 p.m. sharp) I would come back from school and we would sit and awkwardly try to communicate. I would always have my phone ready in case I needed to google translate something. I also wasn’t accustomed to the besitos (a very European cheek kiss). Although it took some getting used to, after about 3 weeks my host mom and I both mutually agreed to a besito after lunch. It became part of our routine.
For my particular program, because it was with UC students and everyone spoke English, I had to be much more proactive in speaking Spanish and getting to know people outside of the UC program. I loved being so close to the Grand Mosque of Córdoba. I was lucky to live in La Juderia which is the old Jewish quarter. It felt worlds apart from living in the U.S. Although I couldn’t actually pray in the mosque (technically it’s a Mosque-Cathedral and Muslims are banned from openly praying) it was beautiful to visit. My program also included a week in Morocco to explore Islamic history in northern Africa. I had a wonderful time in Morocco because of our program leaders on the trip. They facilitated discussion with local youth in each city we stopped at and we had very meaningful conversations around identity and cultural differences. Although I had been to Morocco before, I mostly stayed in the south. During this trip, we explored the cities in the north like Tangier, Asilah, and Rabat. We got to stay with a host family in Rabat for a few days, and they were so surprised when I told them I was Muslim. Keep in mind I was wearing a hijab (headscarf) and modest clothing. It was a similar experience in that when I told my host mom that I was African-American. The Morrocan families proceeded to ask where my grandparents were from. So, this time I tried to explain in my very limited Arabic that my grandparents were also Muslim and they converted in the ’60s with Malcolm X. Either way, they were happy that I was a Muslim and would exclaim “alhamdulillah” praise be to God.
Ultimately my experience studying abroad taught me to be more confident. I also really learned to appreciate the friendships I made with the other students from the program. Friendships were especially important when the COVID-19 pandemic developed as we really supported each other in getting through that whole experience. We had our Whatsapp group chat and everyone updated one another regarding our trips back home. Whenever anyone would leave Europe or Spain, they would message the chat to let everyone know. Also, one of the girls, yoga instructor, hosted weekly yoga sessions where we had a space to relax, unwind, and catch up.
I would 100% suggest studying abroad to anyone thinking about it. Even though I was nervous to stay in a country where not that many people shared my same identities, I didn’t let that hold me back. I really believe that with the right resources and support, study abroad can be a truly life-changing experience.