WHOA – Anya Hynell

Hi! My name is Anya and I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain through UCEAP’s Complutense University of Madrid program in fall 2022. I am a psychology major currently exploring Ph.D. programs to study human sexuality. For me, studying abroad was an especially interesting experience as a queer, low-income student. Through studying abroad, I was able to expand my horizons to imagine new possibilities while growing on a personal level. 

While in Madrid, the flourishing LGBTQ+ community pleasantly surprised me, especially as I lived in the heart of it simply by chance, in Barrio de Chueca. Nearly every shop in this neighborhood aimed to support the lives of LGBTQ+ people: gay & lesbian bars, queer bookstores, LGBTQ+ clothing stores, and kink clubs. Growing up rurally and then moving to Santa Cruz, going to lesbian bars or LGBTQ+ bookstores simply has not been an option for me. I only came out as queer and bisexual a year and a half ago, so being in this environment helped me fully embrace my identity and sexuality to a level that would not be possible in my home country. Thus, for many LGBTQ+ students, several cities in Europe may provide a greater level of acceptance and belonging than they have been able to experience in their home countries. That being said, for trans and non-binary people, I could foresee some challenges with the Spanish language, in particular, as gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they”, are not commonly utilized.  

Although Spain might not be as politically correct as California, its openness about sexuality taught me lessons on both a personal level and a professional level as I want to work with human sexuality. From talking to Spaniards, this openness seemed to translate into lower levels of shame contributing to overall greater mental health. Seeing this divide between a shame-riddled US population and a more accepting Spanish culture has influenced my decision to attend graduate school and the direction of my study. Since studying abroad, I feel more capable than before and believe a doctorate would give me the opportunity to work and study what I am the most passionate about. Now, I hope to study the intersection of culture, shame, and sexuality, so I can provide tools to others to navigate sexual shame in relation to their cultures in a healthier, more productive manner. On a personal level, I feel like this openness has helped me to accept my own sexuality. 

As a low-income student with little to no family financial support, I could participate in more opportunities abroad than at home. Before going abroad, I felt extremely anxious and stressed about the financial aspect – I spent countless nights without sleep, riddled with anxiety attacks. Thus, I applied for every scholarship I could find, and, I could not believe how fortunate I was to be granted almost all the financial support I needed. The most impactful was the Gilman Scholarship, which granted me $4000 of financial support in addition to resources and opportunities throughout the program. If you receive the Federal Pell Grant, I highly recommend applying. As Spain is much cheaper and housing is more affordable than Santa Cruz, I was able to participate in more activities and opportunities than I could at home. For example, I could travel, join a dance group, and practice yoga. I felt grateful for finally being able to pursue hobbies and opportunities that I could not previously do because of financial stress and time limitations. 

When arriving in Madrid, I experienced an initial shock and depressive episode from living in a huge city and feeling like I did not belong. As I grew up bi-cultural, in Sweden and the US, I expected the adjustment to be easy as I have plenty of experience adjusting to new cultures. However, I had never been so far from my family and friends for an extended period of time, so I felt intense loneliness. Additionally, I felt lost in such a large city because I grew up in a small town of 3,000 people. I did not know how to begin meeting new people, especially locals whom I really wanted to connect with. I came out of this episode of depression by first connecting with people in my study abroad program to get me on my feet. Then, I sought opportunities to connect with the local community. This included joining a Latin dance group and a running group. This helped me build a solid network and achieve my goals of wanting a cultural and language immersion experience. 

Studying abroad taught me the importance of staying present to enjoy the moment and the value of staying in the place you are. When going abroad, there is so much pressure to do everything – travel, visit every monument, and make friends. At first, I got swept up in this because I didn’t want to miss out. After feeling burned out, I decided to concentrate more on staying present and enjoying the small things while making time for myself. For me, this meant deleting social media, traveling less, and saying no to some opportunities. Now that I have moved back to Santa Cruz, this has translated into caring out more self-focused time and less phone time. Furthermore, I have begun practicing mindfulness which has also opened the doors to my joining a Non-Violent Communication group.