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Texas A&M senior Mia Mercer in front of the railway in Toledo, Spain.
Texas A&M senior Mia Mercer '23 in front of the railway in Toledo | Image: Mia Mercer '23

My college commute from my home in San Antonio to Aggieland is roughly three hours 161 miles of backroads, small towns and dairy cows. It’s long, it’s familiar and for the last 20 years of my life, it’s remained the farthest distance I’ve traveled on my own from home. That changed by 5,000 miles on February 5, 2022, when I stepped off my first international flight and touched down on foreign ground. 

I was alone in the Madrid-Barajas international airport, tugging along two 50-pound suitcases filled with four months’ worth of clothes, a wad of euros stuffed in my socks, and a severe case of jet lag when it dawned on me: My 161-mile commute of boring backroads would never again compare to a 5,161-mile journey across the Atlantic. 

That journey was just the first leg of the greatest experience of my life. This was the first step toward making my childhood dream of being an adventurer come true. 

After touching down in the heart of Spain, I took a taxi to what I would call home for the next four months. Students in my study abroad program get to choose whether to live in an apartment, private housing or homestay while completing their studies. Since I was determined to return home with a better understanding of Spanish, I decided it would be best to stay with a local family who would encourage me to practice my Spanish daily. 

Once I was situated in my new room and got to know my host family, I began the next part of my journey: exploring. I got in touch with other students, and we wasted no time taking to the streets of Madrid. Together, we figured out how to use the metro system — a much fancier version of the New York subway —  and I spent an arm and a leg at Sol in the center of Madrid buying a brand new wardrobe to fit in with the Spanish fashionistas. Every day I indulged in a two-euro cappuccino and an order of churros y chocolate, and I always came home to a delicious meal featuring authentic Spanish cuisine, from tortillas, to patatas bravas, to an assortment of Jamon and queso.

"The first trip I took outside of Spain was to Rome, Italy. I immediately fell in love with the history of Rome, and I had the opportunity to see places I had only ever read about. I saw the Trevi fountain and Vatican City, tried authentic pasta carbonara, and I stood a stone’s throw away from the Roman Colosseum." | Image: Mia Mercer '23

While I enjoyed the first few days of getting situated in the Madrileno way of life, the fun really began when I started my courses.

I was registered for 12 credit hours at the Universidad Nebrija. Six of those hours were upper-level Spanish courses, and the remaining six were courses in English focused on different aspects of Spanish art and culture. 

Monday through Thursday, I spent each day fine-tuning my Spanish while also learning about the history and culture of the Spanish people. Before long, walking into a restaurant and ordering tapas and cafe in fluent Spanish became second nature, and I could hold longer and more complex conversations with my host family in Spanish. I also started noticing how religion and the history of Spain influenced the traditions and ceremonies they celebrated, and I was amazed at my ability to walk into places like the Prado Museum and recall detailed accounts of the Spanish masterpieces on display without the help of a curator.

Once Thursday classes ended, I always got ready for a weekend of traveling. My education abroad program offered weekly cultural activities aimed at getting a more hands-on experience with Spanish culture, whether exploring the endless trails of Retiro Park or volunteering within the Madrid community. The program also hosted two trips within Spain: one to Toledo, an ancient city on a hill 40 minutes outside of Madrid; and one to Granada, a city richly influenced by Islamic culture in the south of Spain.

In Toledo, we followed a guide through narrow cobblestone roads, taking note of the Christian, Islamic and Jewish influences. Throughout this tour, I debated whether or not I should buy one of the antique swords the city is known for producing (I, unfortunately, did not). When we traveled to Granada, I stood in awe of the Alhambra, an ancient Moorish fortress, and fell in love with traditional Spanish flamenco.

When I wasn’t traveling through Spain, I was booking cheap flights to other countries. I went to Rome, saw the Colosseum and stood directly under Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam." I had the best pizza of my life while walking through the streets of Venice and nearly caught hypothermia after riding a gondola. I ate crepes in Paris and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle while it snowed. I went to London and tried fish and chips, took a stab at a British accent and stared in wonder at some big, ancient rocks known as Stonehenge whose origins remain a mystery. I went to Greece and climbed the Acropolis and admired the remnants of the Parthenon. I went to the Netherlands and saw the biggest tulip festival in the world, and I even traveled to Cairo, Egypt, where I stood atop ancient Egyptian history and rode camels past the Pyramids of Giza — the only great wonder of the world still standing.

As much as I enjoyed my time abroad, I was not immune to culture shock. There were times when I longed to go home, sleep in my own bed and surround myself with comforts specific to America — like spicy buffalo sauce from McDonald's. But because of my amazing study abroad program, I had a support system and could share my experiences and struggles with students in the same boat as me. Those connections, along with the love and support I had from my friends and family back home, made the tough times a lot easier. 

"One of my last trips was to the Netherlands, where I got to experience one of the world’s largest flower gardens, The Keukenhof. There, we spent the day exploring miles and miles of beautiful tulips. After the festival, my friends and I rode bikes, the main form of transport there, and visited their capital city Amsterdam (I even made sure to buy some traditional clogs before we went back home to Madrid!)" | Image: Mia Mercer '23

Thanks to my education abroad program and the scholarships I was awarded through Texas A&M University’s Education Abroad office, I got to experience the adventure of a lifetime. In just four months, my Spanish improved tremendously. I knew the streets of Madrid like the back of my hand, I had taken advantage of the opportunity to explore cities outside of Spain, and I built lifelong relationships with the people who were with me every step of the way.  

On my final day in Madrid, I walked into the Madrid-Barajas airport with just a few more suitcases than I had arrived with and only five euros left in my pocket (not my sock this time). I ordered one last Spanish cappuccino and boarded my flight, mentally preparing myself for the nine-hour trip back home. It wasn’t until I watched the Spanish countryside fade completely from my sight that I realized I had completed my first great adventure.

Now, as a new fall semester unfolds back in Bryan-College Station, I can’t wait for the next adventure to begin.

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Learn more about education abroad in the College of Arts and Sciences and the important role that international experiences play in preparing students for successful careers and leadership roles in our increasingly diverse and global environment.