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Photo by Sara Yung

During her night tour of the Muslim-influenced sector of Granada, Spain, senior Mehar-Un-Nisa Athar sat on a wall built on top of a hill overlooking the intricate Islamic architecture of the Alhambra—a palace and fortress described by natives as “a pearl set in emeralds.” As she sat in complete silence—save for the gentle strumming of a guitar behind her—and faced the soft illumination from the palace alongside her host family, Athar said she realized her host country had become her home.

As a participant of the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Languages (IUHPFL), Athar studied Spanish language and culture for two months in Ciudad Real, a city in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain, which had been a goal of hers since she was in eighth grade. While there, Athar lived with her host family: her host mother, Pepi, 22-year-old host brother, Carlos, and 28-year-old host sister, Beatrice. In addition to immediate members of her host family, Athar was able to meet members of its extended family, allowed her to feel more like a true member of her host family.

“(My host mother) also had her entire extended family who I met,” Athar said. “We’d go every weekend to see them in the pueblo or the village. Her sisters, her brothers, their kids, everyone together—it was crazy, like I was part of this huge family.”

Athar said she quickly grew close to her host family during her two months with them and eventually came to share an especially close relationship with her host sister.

“I got along with them really well,” Athar said. “I’m too extroverted not to get along. (Beatrice) and I are very similar because she likes art and painting and stuff like that, so we’d go paint together. In conversation, she’s very interesting and opinionated, which is cool. She became kind of like a real sister, and we still keep in contact now.”

French teacher Andrea Yocum said she, as a world language teacher, explains the value of the IUHPFL program to her classes because the experience not only gives students the opportunity to develop their language skills, but also allows them to live with a family in a new country and build lasting connections.

“I think IUHPFL is a wonderful program,” Yocum said. “It’s very beneficial. I feel like the students come back being practically fluent. I feel like they have a great chance to live with a family abroad and make those connections and make a new little home for themselves. They get to have that family for the rest of their lives really.”

However, Yocum said it may be difficult for students to adapt to the new environment at first, mostly due to the initial language barrier.

“You might be a little bit nervous, and you might have a bit of trouble communicating with your host family and really opening up and being comfortable at first, but it’s really not much different from class,” Yocum said. “I always tell students to just think of it as level four (of a world language course), so that even if it is a bit intimidating at first, by about two weeks into it, you’ll be totally fine.”

Submitted Photo by Mehar-Un-Nisa Athar

“Even their interactions with one another are so much more relaxed. They don’t have these weird formalities or bubbles. When you meet someone, it’s customary to kiss them once on each cheek so immediately there’s this closeness, no bubble. It’s just so different, and with me and my extrovertedness and just how chill I am, I felt really comfortable. It was refreshing to be surrounded by people like that. It felt homey.

Senior Mehar-Un-Nisa Athar

Athar agreed with Yocum in that, although she felt comfortable relatively quickly, her language skills were initially a barrier as she tried to feel more at home with her host family.

“The first day in Spain, I was kind of quiet but not really,” Athar said. “My (host) mom was really impressed that I could speak even a little bit of Spanish because a lot of kids come and they’re totally mute. I didn’t have (many) problems while adjusting. I felt really welcomed and comfortable, but I did have a bit trouble there at the beginning.”

Despite potential difficulties with language skills at the beginning of the trip, students, according to Yocum, will start to feel at home more quickly if they are open with their host families.

“As long as the person is open and willing to be themselves and be honest, but also be willing to participate in things with their families, they’ll be totally fine,” Yocum said. “They’ll start to adjust and feel at home in no time.”

In addition to preparing her own students to spend time in foreign countries through IUHPFL, Yocum has also participated in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange, which allowed her to teach English for a full school year in Dakar, Senegal.

“I would definitely consider (Senegal) to be my home away from home,” Yocum said. “We were just recently watching a clip of a Senegalese movie in AP French, and I kind of started getting a bit choked up and weirdly homesick for Senegal. It’s just a really neat place, and everyone is just so welcoming. It really felt like home.”

While she considers Senegal to be her home away from home and still communicates with the teachers she met while visiting, Yocum said it was still difficult to adjust and begin to feel at home in a place that she considered to be drastically different from her own country.

“Adapting was tough,” Yocum said. “At first, there was definitely a little bit of culture shock (from) just getting used to a different way of life.”

According to Yocum, the greatest lifestyle difference was the relaxed attitude of the Senegalese people she met.

She said, “People aren’t as demanding or deadline-oriented so that took a while to get used to, but by the end of the year, it was really nice. I came to realize that there were things that were more important than work … It was hard to get used to that because, as an American, I’m very focused on following the rules or timelines and getting things done by deadlines, so that was definitely very different and took some adjusting, but after a while it became kind of second nature.”

Below: A collection of photos from Athar’s study abroad experience in Ciudad Real, Spain. 

Although Athar said the Spanish natives whom she interacted with had a relaxed attitude similar to that of the Senegalese people Yocum met, she also said this outlook suited her personality, allowing her to more easily feel at home, rather than serving as an obstacle to adaptation.

“The people are much more relaxed (in Spain),” she said. “Their motto is like ‘no pasa nada,’ which is basically like ‘it’s good.’ If you spill something, they’re like ‘oh no pasa nada.’ They’re just really chill, very relaxed.… I’ve always been like that too, so that helped me connect.”

According to Athar, this relaxed mindset translated into the interactions between her and the Spanish natives whom she encountered, which facilitated an openness and a closeness far different from the social formalities of the United States.

“Even their interactions with one another are so much more relaxed,” Athar said. “They don’t have these weird formalities or bubbles. When you meet someone, it’s customary to kiss them once on each cheek so immediately there’s this closeness, no bubble. It’s just so different, and with me and my extrovertedness and just how chill I am, I felt really comfortable. It was refreshing to be surrounded by people like that. It felt homey.”

Due to its relaxed atmosphere and the openness of its people, Spain, Athar said, quickly and easily began to feel like home as she began to befriend not only her host family but also others located throughout the country.

“It probably took like a week before it (started) feeling like home, like it wasn’t even a big deal,” Athar said. “The first week, we got really tight and my family and I got along really easily, really quickly. I just got along with every really quickly, so I just formed these friendships that made me adjust very quickly in that first week.”

After her own experiences while traveling abroad and hearing about the experiences of students involved in IUHPFL, Yocum said she would encourage any world language student to follow in the footsteps of Athar and many others by traveling to diverse countries.

“I think that any time that you get a chance to travel, you should take the opportunity,” Yocum said. “You should take the opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself because you gain more than you could ever lose. You get to meet so many amazing people and explore amazing new places and really just build little homes for yourself in other places in the world that you can return to and reconnect with.”

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Christine Fernando