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¡Hola! My name is Natalia, I´m a part of the lucky SUA's seventh class (Class of 2011), and I´ve been studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador, for the past three months.
Most of you know that the study abroad experience really starts in your sophomore year--you start attending Alex and Fran´s meetings where that preparation process begins. You have to ask yourself: Which semester do I want to study abroad in? Where do I want to spend an entire semester? How many different experiences from upperclassmen do I need to hear in order to make a sane and logical decision of committing myself to that one country for five months? After careful consideration, I chose Xalapa, Mexico. But as the H1N1 virus spread starting in Mexico in April 2009, a few different influences were telling me that I shouldn't go there in the fall (the strongest being my parents, of course). Out of respect for them, I chose to go to Quito instead.
At first I resented the polluted air and streets, in-your-face poverty, shameless stares, cat-calls, and my inability to communicate in Spanish. But after three months, this strange place at el mitad del mundo (the middle of the world) has shown me how to find the wealth of positive things among such negative things (both in my new environment and within myself). Through facing setbacks, I've been able to open my eyes up to the true beauty that Ecuador emanates and find something similar inside of me.
Looking back, my first big setback was actually kind of chistoso (funny): I had not even been here for an entire month when I contracted a severe virus and was clinically diagnosed with the swine flu. The thing that chased me away from my first choice study abroad country caught up with me here in my second choice country. I thought, "What does that mean?" Although completely bizarre at first, I'm happy it happened so early on. It served as concrete reassurance that there is definitely a bigger reason why I'm here in Ecuador and not in Mexico.
Whether it's Mexico or Ecuador, study abroad is a big mysterious thing that I couldn't conjure up the faintest expectations for when I was getting ready this past summer. That being said, there were only two concrete things I decided I wanted for myself while I was here.
The first thing was a host family that would change my life. I've been saying since my first month here that my host family is my favorite part of study abroad--they're everything and more that I could ever want in a true family. They're a hard-working, honest bunch who are dedicated to their passions (for my host dad: auto racing, my host mom: her daycare in the front yard, my 20 year old host brother: graphic design, and my 19 year old host sister: medicine). They are people I can laugh with, depend on, and confide in. I can open up to them about absolutely anything and they listen intently to my slowly-improving Spanish with patient, sincere faces.
The second thing I wanted before I came here was an opportunity to show how SUA is the best school in the world. I knew I would probably appreciate SUA a zillion times more once I wasn't there anymore (yep, it's so true that you do), and so I wanted to give back by making the amazing things SUA has given me apparent through my everyday interactions with all these new people I met--Americans and Ecuadorians alike. I also realized that you are wherever you come from; your environment defines you. Being thrown into a completely new environment and having the English language taken away from me suddenly made it hard to remember who I was and where I came from. Slowly finding a place here while at the same time trying to carry with me what I learned these passed two years at SUA has proven to be difficult yet the coolest way to develop character. I've been enjoying sharing what SUA´s all about with the other exchange students in my program, my program director, my host family, and many others.
In addition to giving me the opportunity to connect with an amazing host family and share SUA, Quito is also giving me opportunities to face darker parts of me that I haven't exactly been dying to confront. There are challenges on study abroad that find you everyday, stare you straight in the eye and dare you to change those weaknesses you've held onto throughout your entire life. I've struggled with taking classes in Spanish, overlooking the differences I have with those around me, studying in a university that isn't SUA (yeah, it's hard), feeling suffocated by a language barrier, and even encountering a flaky Latin romantic interest. Although it's like being on a rollercoaster, I've been able to practice not only being myself, but also mustering up the inner strength to get over such unexpected hurdles.
What's been more important than the set-backs are the new and incredible things Ecuador has shown me. Once you look past Quito's mask of socio-economic stratification, pollution, and crime, you discover beautiful cultural nuances, a one-of-a-kind dynamic nurtured by an immense amount of diversity, and wonderful people right before your eyes. Even more, Ecuador itself offers a myriad of natural wonders within its tiny perimeter that have the tremendous capacity to captivate anyone.
At first I couldn't see past the negative aspects of this place, as my life-long weakness was focusing on my negative qualities instead of believing in my worthy ones. But after almost 3 months here, I'm learning once and for all to let go of self-induced inhibitions and slowly gain a permanent self-assurance that I also have a capacity to captivate (like the breath-taking Andean mountains landscapes, tropical rainforests, and Galapagos Islands paradise of this country).
I believe that my study abroad experience can only be complete once I bring everything I've gained here in my second home back to my first home, back to my family in New York, back to all you guys at SUA. ¡No puedo esperar a que nos volvamos a ver otra vez!