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Swimming in New Waters

Natalie Labonge (far right) said she gained confidence and independence by studying abroad. She also cherishes the friendships she made.

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Studying abroad allows students to apply their learning to the real world as they gain first-hand experience with other cultures, languages, traditions and people. It also teaches students a lot about themselves as they navigate new, unfamiliar environments.  This Q&A is part of a series highlighting how Humanities and Social Sciences students have incorporated study abroad into their undergraduate career.

Natalie Labonge is a junior majoring in Communication and Spanish who studied abroad in Spain during summer 2015.  An academically strong student with a double major, Natalie is also a member of NC State’s Women’s Swimming Team, and was thrilled to fit a study abroad experience into her busy schedule.

What sparked your interest in study abroad?

Studying abroad had been in the back of my mind for years as something I would love to do, and I saw several friends who were able to study abroad. I never thought it would be feasible with my schedule, especially as a collegiate athlete. However, one of my Spanish classes required us to attend the study abroad fair and I saw that there were several opportunities that might work for the summer, so I started to plan.  

Describe your experience.

I studied in Segovia, Spain, from May 10 – June 8, 2015, as a part of the Spanish: Language, Technology, and Culture program. Segovia is a beautiful, small city about an hour from Madrid. The architecture, culture and charm of Segovia made me feel like I was in a fairy tale every day. I could walk anywhere I needed to go in the city. There were 26 students in the program, and we each lived with a different host family. I was enrolled in 6 credit hours, taking two Spanish classes, one taught by Professor James McConnell of NC State and the other by a local Spanish professor. We met for class almost every day, but also had the opportunity to travel to many different cities around Spain, including Madrid, Barcelona and Toledo — to name a few. I was also able to kayak, hike and tour castles.

How did studying abroad relate to your major, career, or personal goals?  

I am majoring in Spanish and Communication (Public Relations), and I knew the best way to improve my Spanish speaking skills was to live in a Spanish-speaking country and immerse myself in both the language and culture. I also did not know when I would ever have an opportunity like this again. I wanted to travel, meet new people and learn about other cultures first-hand.

What are some things you learned?

I learned so much Spanish and general European history. Segovia is more than 2,000 years old, and the architecture is incredible. I have newfound appreciation for architecture after living in a city with a Roman aqueduct, magnificent cathedral, and a castle that housed many kings and queens. I learned about the Spanish lifestyle, siesta, food and nightlife. I visited museums and historic sites, but also learned a lot just by interacting with my host family. Talking to them every evening and watching the news together improved my speaking abilities tremendously. I learned about their political system and the current issues Spanish people face. In a practical sense, I have become an experienced traveler — much more confident and independent.

What were some of the challenges?

Initially adjusting to the language was very challenging. I had to get used to the local Spanish, which is very different than communicating in a classroom setting. Living with a host family was a bit intimidating at first, but my host mom and dad were absolutely wonderful. I had to learn my way around the city, how to withdraw and budget my money, and other aspects of daily living. It was hard to stick to a regular schedule of exercise, but I managed to swim from time to time and stay fairly active.

What were some of the rewards?

I met some incredible people during my time abroad. It is amazing to say that I have a family still in Spain that I know I could return to. Saying goodbye to my host family was harder than I could have imagined. It is cliché to say, but I truly have memories that will last forever. I strongly encourage students to study abroad. Start by going to the study abroad fair, or looking on the university website. It was definitely one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I would not trade the experience for the world.