The Art of the Struggle

In Minca, Magdalena, Colombia.
In the historic center of Bogota.

In my last post, I mentioned that I would probably be stumbling through Spanish conversation for a few weeks. Well, I’m proud to announce that after living here for three months — I’m absolutely still stumbling. I still have to practice my order at restaurants before I actually say it. There’s no way for me to “just wing it” with my class presentations. Simple things that I took for granted, like bantering with a barista, become that much more difficult when everyone speaks a different language.

I came to Colombia with an intermediate-advanced level of the Spanish language. The first thing everyone said when I told them I was studying abroad was, “Oh! Your Spanish is going to improve so quickly!” Everyone made it seem instant, as if within minutes I’d be smooth-talking my way through any situation thrown at me. The reality is much different. Yes, my language abilities have improved significantly. However, it still takes me twice the amount of time to do my homework. My vocabulary is wonderful or abysmal, depending on the context. (I never learned the words I’d need for a conversation about urban farming.) Sometimes, I completely blank on a word I’ve known for years.

The Old Quarter of Cartagena has almost identical architecture to the French Quarter in NOLA. We felt even more at home when we found a Bourbon St. themed restaurant!

What they don’t tell you is that it’s a constant struggle. American culture is hyper-focused on instant gratification. We take an exam and we want the results immediately. We order our food and it better be plated and piping hot within minutes. We call an Uber and if it’s more than six minutes away we cancel it and check Lyft. So naturally, we study abroad and want things to click right away.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like to not be good at something. However, as I was struggling through a 65-page paper on the Argentinian cattle industry, I realized that maybe the struggle is what it’s all about. Looking back on my three months abroad, I’ve come to appreciate the things that don’t come easy to me, the things that challenge me and make my brain feel like it’s working in complete overdrive. When everything around you is unfamiliar — a different language, culture, style of life — it’s more than hard work, it’s a struggle. And yet, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

Not to sound cheesy, but every single experience is an amplified opportunity to learn about myself and the world around me. Not necessarily because I’m abroad — I think anyone and anywhere can teach me a lesson, even the town I’ve lived in for years. I think when you study abroad, you feel motivated to pay attention to the little things and what they can say about the bigger picture. You feel inclined to go to that museum, see that festival or take that random trip to a small town. It’s an attitude that I’d like to bring back to the U.S. with me, a sort of eager, adventure-seeking spirit.

The best arepas around! From a cart on the Uniandes campus.

So, while the pictures I post on Instagram are mostly smiles, the real abroad experience is so much more than that. I’m absolutely struggling every day, but I’m so thankful to be doing so. Achieving a substantial goal requires persistence and resilience, and the ability to laugh at yourself along the way. Like when I said I thought about dyeing my skin (piel) pink instead of my hair (pelo). Nothing comes easy, and this experience is a testament to that. So, yes, the art of the struggle is something I’ve come to welcome, appreciate and embrace during my time in South America. And arepas, those are a close second.

Margo Schnapf (BSM ’21), a finance major, is studying at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, during fall 2019.