My name is Denilson Perez, and I’m a Latin America and Latinx Studies/Sociology combined major and Language Studies minor. My study abroad experience took place in two different locations; Bologna, Italy, and Mexico City, Mexico. I attended both of these programs through the University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP).
My study abroad experience was insightful, challenging, and rewarding. Being a first-generation college student from a low-income background, I didn’t know much about the logistics of studying abroad or how I’d be able to afford it. These uncertainties were resolved through the aid and guidance of the UCSC Global Learning team and scholarships through organizations such as Fund for Education Abroad and UCEAP.
Aside from logistical obstacles, I also faced personal challenges, although different ones in each country. My time in Italy was quite enjoyable. I spent my initial months exploring the historical and stunning city of Bologna, meeting locals and other UC/international students. It was an exciting time that made me reflect on the beauty of travel. However, being that I was in Italy and the majority of the population is of European descent, as an Afro-Mexican I felt like I stood out due to my darker complexion and curly hair. When I would walk down the streets of my host city, I can remember receiving many stares and other UC peers noticed as well. My professor in my intensive Italian language class explained to us that the staring was a cultural thing. I didn’t understand this and I found it a little rude even, since in the U.S. usually you’ll at least greet the person if you’re staring them down.
Cultural differences aside, my proficiency in the Italian language helped me connect and interact with locals and internationals. It was fun and interesting interacting with locals. Through these experiences, I was able to get a better sense of Italian customs and attitudes. Within Bologna, there was also a degree of ethnic diversity as I was able to meet people from Cuba, Brazil, and Egypt to name a few places. These interactions allowed me to learn about other international experiences and contributed to my understanding of my immediate environment.
Being far from home there were times in which I missed the familiar sounds and smells. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to build community with other Latinx students in my program. I met my support system and travel friends through attending the planned excursions my program offered. These were great opportunities to learn more about my host country’s history and culture as well as to meet other UC students with similar backgrounds and interests that ended up becoming lifelong friends.
In Mexico City, I attended classes with local and international students at the country’s most prestigious school: the National Autonomous University of Mexico. All of my courses were taught in Spanish and I believed my background in the language would suffice but I soon realized that taking university-level courses in Spanish was different from my day-to-day conversations with my family. At some point, I suffered feelings of imposter syndrome because I didn’t feel I was quite on par with my peers and sometimes discussions were hard to participate in since I found it difficult to express my ideas in a Spanish-speaking academic setting. I spoke about these insecurities with my housemates and family and was able to receive guidance and support to overcome the situation. My housemates were also Mexican-American and were able to relate to my struggles. It helped to talk about the issues we were experiencing together and try to come up with solutions such as forming a study group and holding each other accountable. We also looked over each other’s work and provided feedback. My family living in the city was also a great resource to seek support in my times of doubt. They helped to remind me that I was capable of succeeding in my courses as well as looked over essays and assignments before I submitted them.
I’m beyond grateful for the time I spent in Mexico City, getting the opportunity to study abroad in the nation’s most prestigious university was a privilege. I’ve visited the country regularly over the past few years since my grandmother and aunts live there and these visits have helped me develop my understanding of my identity as a Chicano. Initially, I had to deal with not feeling Mexican or American enough. I grew up in South Central, Los Angeles, a predominantly Black and Latinx community. In this community, I was exposed to various cultures in the Latinx diaspora. My own identity and sense of Mexican culture were informed by these experiences. Living in Mexico City for six months coupled with the past summers I’ve spent in the country I’ve been able to explore and negotiate my Mexican identity; becoming more informed about the history, cultural norms, and customs as well as the great diversity amongst the regions of Mexico.
Reflecting on the lessons learned throughout my year abroad, I consider these experiences indispensable to my academic and personal growth. I faced diverse challenges and obstacles in each location that I had not expected. Overcoming these difficulties was not easy and at times I felt I would not succeed. However, learning to adapt to my environment and seeking support when needed are skills I’ve been able to practice and become better at. As a traveler, these abilities are crucial because you constantly find yourself in unfamiliar situations which I believe is one of the great benefits of studying abroad; you’re placed in unexpected as well as exciting situations that allow you the opportunity to discover more about yourself as well as expand your knowledge about the world around you.