Reflecting After a Semester in Madrid

Simon Wallace headshot
Simon Wallace
January 19, 2024

It’s been a few weeks now since my semester in Madrid ended. One thing about studying abroad in the fall, once it ends you’re sort of thrown into the holiday season and spending time at home with family and friends. And that’s exactly what I was looking forward to, and exactly what I needed after being so far away from home for the first time. But returning home for the holidays—where as many as 12 of us were packed into our house at one point and I found myself sharing my bed with my brother and his dog—wasn’t exactly conducive to reflecting on my time abroad. It was a whirlwind really, living this entirely different life and routine in a foreign country and then practically teleporting into the holiday season back home. For that reason, it’s taken some time to gather my thoughts about this past semester and what I’ve learned, but I think now I’ve finally found the time and energy to put it into words.

I think the overarching theme from the experiences I’ve had abroad is that it’s given me a little more confidence, particularly more confidence in what I want—or don’t want—out of life. Don’t get me wrong, though—this semester was humbling as well. For one, the gap between my expectation of how much Spanish I was going to learn versus how much I actually did was pretty significant. I think a part of me thought that since I would be living in Spain and taking a Spanish language class, picking up some conversational Spanish would be somewhat inevitable. In reality, to learn a language even when living in the language’s country of origin, you have to go into it with intentionality and a healthy dose of humility. You have to swallow your pride as you talk to locals with what is essentially the language ability of a 6-year-old. It would’ve been nice to get over that hump and sort of see the world through a different lens in the way that I imagine learning another language allows you to. Unfortunately, though, I would say I only reached “survival Spanish” level competency, but hey, here’s to progress. 

As I’ve said, my time abroad has given me a better sense of what is it is I want out of life. I do hope to continue to travel periodically, whether internationally or within the U.S. Maybe I will even live abroad for a year or two. That being said, I’ve realized that I crave stability and continuity more so than the average person. Though it is interesting that I had to go abroad and reject stability and continuity to fully realize that. That’s the thing, though. At my home university, it was easy to get in the habit of just grinding through my courses day-by-day, and it was hard to take the time to zoom out. Being abroad gave me that time and space to zoom out and it gave me a new angle to think about the broader aspects of my life. But it was also an invaluable reminder that I don’t need to know exactly what I want at all times.

My first post in this series of blogs, I referenced a short video of Bryan Cranston explaining his love for travel and recollecting on the insights he gained while vagabonding around the US as a young man. The line in that video that now sticks with me is his response to his wife whenever she asks him where he’s going when he goes on a walk or drive in a new city. He says, “Not really, I’m just kind of exploring different places. And as long as you have a sense of direction, you’ll find your way. You’ll figure it out.” This semester of travel and novelty enhanced my own personal sense of direction and made me more comfortable living life without a detailed map. 

Last year, a good friend of mine also studied abroad, and in regard to his semester in Spain I remember him saying something along the lines of, “It was a nice break from pretending to know what exactly you’re doing with your life.” At the time I don’t think I had a great grasp on what he meant, but I think I understand a little better now. In that sense, my semester in Madrid was something of a short break. As much as it was an ode to the present, it was also a break from looking too far down the road—in either direction. I can’t say I came back with any epiphanies, no great words of wisdom really, but after exploring city after city these past few months I do feel a little bit more confident when it comes to finding my way around and knowing where I want to go. Long story short, my map is a little clearer, a little more detailed, but it’s still a work in progress—just like my Spanish.

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Simon Wallace

I'm from Williamsport, Pennsylvania and I am a senior at Penn State University studying computer science. I enjoy being physically active, whether that's organized sports, going to the gym, or just spending time outdoors.

2023 Fall
Home University:
Penn State University
Computer Science
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