Sam Hochberger

Global Citizen of the Year Award • 2019 Finalist

IES Abroad ProgramGranada - Study in Granada

College/University: Macalester College

Majors: Neuroscience with minors in Spanish and Psychology

Hometown: Maple Grove, Minnesota

Sam knew he would advance his knowledge of the Spanish language and culture while studying abroad, but he did not expect to come home with a new outlook on life, the world, and a new career path. After volunteering at a Granada non-profit that provides services to the autism community and their families, and having eye-opening conversations with African immigrants while on a field trip to Morocco, Sam made the decision to support immigrant and under-privileged communities back home in Minnesota.

“It should not be the job of oppressed groups of people to fight the battle of ending inequality alone,” he wrote. Sam now volunteers with Wellstone Elementary, a Spanish and English immersion school in St. Paul. He plans to teach English in South America after graduating to further develop his intercultural understanding before continuing on to medical school. In the future, he hopes to be a pediatric doctor working with low-income and immigrant Latinx communities to ensure underrepresented groups receive the high quality medical care they deserve.

Sam's Story

IES Abroad: Take us back to the beginning of your study abroad experience. What made you want to study abroad? Why Granada? How did your journey begin?

Sam Hochberger (SH): There's actually a couple of reasons that I ended up Granada. I did a couple of service trips while I was in high school to Costa Rica and South Africa, and kind of having those week-long experiences of being abroad kind of gave me that bug to want to go and actually want to have a meaningful long-term experience in a different country.

I had been studying Spanish for about six years, so I knew I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country, so that narrowed it down a little bit for me. And Europe was something I never experience before. I had been to Central America, so Spain seemed like the best option, kind of following out that way.

I wanted to be able to practice and work on my Spanish as much as possible, so I knew I wanted a smaller city where tourism was a little bit less, and so of the Macalester-approved programs, Granada was my best option I thought.

In addition to that, I was really intrigued by Andalucía by their rich history with the Moors and the Jews and Christians and kind of all that mix of experiences there. I thought it would be an amazing place to go, not just for the language, but also for the cultural aspect. So I guess those combination of things landed me in Granada.

IES Abroad: You interned with MÍRAME, a non-profit in Granada that provides services to the autistic community and their families. In your application, you wrote about an interaction that you’ll never forget. Can you share that story again and describe that experience?

SH: I worked with MÍRAME for two different programs. One of them was their adapted sports program, and that's where I met one little boy who was about five years old, and he had one of the more profound forms of autism that I worked with while I was in Spain. So he would do a lot of repetitive behaviors. He could make a couple of words, but not many, and really didn't have much interest in social interactions or concentration or anything like that.

Working with him was a challenge throughout the semester. He wouldn't really look at me or really want to interact with me too much. So I would just keep trying, really, every day, and without really any success with him. But one day, it was actually one of my last days with him, we were doing some sports activity and we had some balls out, and I just sat him down and I tried to have him push the ball back with me. I was speaking to him in Spanish because of course he spoke Spanish. And nothing was really happening.

I would push the ball to him and I'd have to go and get it and push it again. And I kept trying. I kept trying and saying, "Push the ball to me. Push the ball to me." And finally, he did. And it seems like the littlest thing, the smallest thing, like “who cares about it?” But after working with him for two months, and really, him not even really acknowledging I'm there, knowing that he heard me, he knew I was there, something got through to him in that moment, was really pretty amazing to me to see, given how severe his form of autism was.

So knowing that there is someone inside of him there that wanted to interact with me, that was a really, really special moment, probably the most special that I did in my internship.

IES Abroad: You previously had worked with children with developmental disabilities in the U.S. and you study neuroscience – two experiences that you said gave you tools and knowledge to utilize at MÍRAME. How did your previous experiences and studies inform your work at MÍRAME? 

SH: So yes, I am a neuroscience major, and I have had the opportunity to work with Gigi's Playhouse, which predominantly worked with kids with Down Syndrome but also kids with other disabilities here in the U.S.

And I would say over the course of the various psychology courses I've taken in school, we talked a lot about child development and some tools that people use to help work with kids and help them learn how to do things and hold their concentration. That really helped me from a kind of logistical sense of how I could interact with these kids with MÍRAME.

But I would definitely say my experience with Gigi's Playhouse was even more important to me given that I had already worked with a population that had intellectual disabilities. And it is different working with children with intellectual disabilities than typical children because there's different techniques that I had to employ to get their attention.

If there was an emotional outburst, there was things I had learned in the past that I could kind of draw upon the calm down situations especially emotionally charged situations and get kids to kind of refocus and try to integrate into group sessions.

I think the biggest thing those previous experiences gave me was the comfort in knowing that I could manage maybe uncomfortable situations while working with MÍRAME and that really helped me when I was there.

IES Abroad: How did your internship expand on your previous understanding of autism?

SH: This is actually one of my favorite questions because I wasn't expecting actually to have that different of experience working with kids who have autism in Spain than in the U.S. And I was very wrong because over the course of the semester working with the kids, focusing on just them, the presentation they had of autism it seemed different to me.

In my experience working in the U.S., kids are very reserved. They don't want to have any social interaction. They don't like being touched. And they definitely don't like interacting with each other very much. And I could see some of those things with the kids I worked with in Spain. However, I think Spain itself has a huge cultural importance on community, on connection, and they are a more tactile culture.

They do touching and hugging and kissing more than the United States from what I noticed. And that really showed in the kids which was very interesting to see. I would get kisses on both cheeks from some of the kids. They would hug me. They would try to interact with me, but they just didn't really know how. I think that's kind of how the autism was manifesting itself in those kids, was they didn't know how to do social interactions that most people can do, but they had more of a desire to have them then I think a lot of the kids in the U.S. that I saw.

And obviously, I don't know why that was the case with the 15 kids I worked with, but I do think there was a large cultural aspect that Spain on had on the development of those kids.

The manner in which I got to work with the kids in Spain was different than in the U.S. It was a different sense of a professional setting in Spain where I could have more freedom with the kids. There wasn't so many limitations. It was more unstructured, and I could kind of work with the kids based on their own personality, how they work best, and kind of formulate my own kind of action plan of how to best help them.

So it was a little more of a hands-off approach over there than it was here in the U.S., and I think there were advantages and disadvantages to that, but it was definitely a different style of working with them that was really interesting to be a part of.

IES Abroad: In your application you also shared about meeting with immigrants from the Ivory Coast in Morocco. What stuck with you from that conversation and how does it shape the way you see the world now?

SH: That was a very, very tough conversation to be a part of, especially coming from a very privileged background, being a white male living here in the United States. I would say before I had this experience, I knew about the challenges that people had immigrating from different places and you'd hear about it in the news, you'd learn about it in school. But it's a completely different experience learning a story from someone firsthand of sexual abuse, of being sold, or being betrayed by their own family or their own government, and just feeling like an outsider wherever they are.

It struck a chord with me, and I think, with every student that was in the room with me learning and talking that day. And it definitely pushed me to want to make a difference and do something for the immigrant population that live, where I live here in the U.S.

That was kind of the turning point for me of my abroad experience where I was. I knew I loved working with kids, I loved working with MÍRAME but I also wanted to now bring that to help an underserved population here in the U.S.

And so from that experience, that's what pushed me to want to volunteer in a Spanish immersion school this semester with low-income kids who are immigrants from Central America and South America. It's kind of lit a fire in me that something needs to be done for this population, and the people who are the targets of this racism in this difficult immigration process shouldn't be the only voice fighting for their rights.

I think the people who have privilege and privileged statuses in the world should be on the front lines with them to help and whatever small part I can do in that process I want to be a part of. So I think that is the biggest thing I took away from that conversation.

IES Abroad: What did you learn about the world through your experiences in Granada?

SH: I love this question, but I also hate this question because there was so many that I learned. But when I really break it down to just, I guess, the biggest theme that my semester was abroad in Granada that I learned about the world is that people live their lives in such a different way in so many different places.

I had a big culture shock going to Grenada and learning all the new customs and ways of life – and language apart from the whole thing – just how they behave, how [various] things are done over there is so different.

I think a lot of the political climate and culture that we live in today focuses on how our differences make us bad, or undesirable, or divide us. But what I really notice from being abroad was how welcomed I felt from the community over there even though almost everything I did and acted like was different from the Granadians that I interacted with.

Having that opportunity to work alongside Spaniards in MÍRAME and live with a host family, I was able to learn their way of life. They were curious and interested to know how I live mine. And I think that intercultural exchange that I had with them over there made us both better because of our differences.

So I think I really got to learn firsthand how our differences really make us a stronger world than a weaker one. And I think that message has gotten a little bit mixed up in recent years. So I think that's the biggest thing I learned about the world being abroad last semester.

IES Abroad: What did you learn about yourself?

SH: The biggest thing I learned about myself - and I think my friends and family would say I'm a different for it now that I'm home - is I realize how important people are in my life. I know before going abroad, it was very, very academic-based. And I love science. I wanted to be a scientist. And just that was it. And I valued my relationships, but not like I do now.

Being abroad, especially in Granada specifically, there's such a strong sense of community. There's such a strong sense of love for your friends and your family and your neighborhoods. And I was constantly being waved at on the street or hugged by someone I just met. And there was so much just love for other people that I saw there.

… And it actually really strongly influenced my decision to want to become a doctor rather than a scientist because I want to have that interpersonal relationships with patients, with people, with my job one day. I think working and living with people is the most important thing.

The culture and environment that lives in Granada really exemplified that for me and made me really think a lot harder about how important my relationships are with everyone that I love.

IES Abroad: How has your study abroad experience shaped your future? What’s next for you in the short-term? What kind of world do you want to help build in the long-term?

SH: The short term is that I'm in my third year of college, and I have about a year and a half left. With that year and a half, I am working at a-- as I said previously, a Spanish immersion school. And so I really am going to try to use this next year to really involve myself with the Latinx community here in the Twin Cities in Minnesota because I realize that that is the population that I want to serve one day as a doctor predominantly.

After college, I hope to travel abroad actually to South America to work and teach English in a South American country to hopefully achieve fluency in Spanish but also to really learn about the culture and the places that Latin American immigrants come from.

Then I'll hopefully one day be able to go to medical school and work to have a focus on pediatric, working with children and especially children that are Latin American immigrants maybe that are from a lower-income community.

A lot of that has to really with what I experienced in Morocco and with MÍRAME and what I did abroad last semester. So my paths have changed before, but as of right now, that is really what I'm looking forward to do, and I have a lot motivation to do it.

IES Abroad: Thinking about yourself and your peers who will be graduating in the next year or so, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges you anticipate facing?

SH: The biggest challenge I anticipate facing is the complete independence that I'll have after I'm done with college. I think a lot of people think that after high school you can go and do whatever you want to do, and that is true but if you choose college, there is quite a bit of structure to that.

When I’m done, it's kind of all on me to make my life what I want it to be. And so that I think will be a little bit of a challenge to make a structure for myself for once. And I know I've heard the same thing from several friends.

That is one thing I am also grateful for going abroad as well because that definitely being thrown into a country by myself without a ton of support-- a lot of support coming from IES Abroad, but other than that, not a ton-- really helped me, I think, being able to envision myself as being an independent, functioning adult after I'm done with college.

So I think that independence, that sheer independence will be probably the biggest challenge.

IES Abroad: What do you think are the most important skills and qualities you will all need to carry with you to face these challenges?

SH: I think probably the biggest skill that I'll need and my peers will need is an open mind.

I was talked to a lot about having open mind in my pre-orientation process before going to Spain, and I thought about that really ever since – going into every situation now with an open mind about how different people think, in different ways, and how I'll have to be able to adapt myself to different situations. I'm not always going to get along with everyone and not everything's going to work out.

I think going into especially challenging situations, like a new job or a new career, to have an open mind and that everything is possible will really make that experience easier, rather than trying to brace for the worst, or I already think I know what's happening when I really don't.

So I think definitely having an open mind will be the biggest key to success after college, for me and my peers.

IES Abroad: Who is a peer that inspires you; whether that’s someone you know personally or have looked up to from afar?

SH: The peer that inspires me and actually inspired me to go abroad was my best friend from home. She has been, I think, my friend for six years now. And she studied for six months in Australia in 2019 as well, at the beginning part of it.

She was the first person I knew to study abroad that was my age, and she did not have one ounce of fear going into it. She was so ready. She planned everything out. She was so independent about the whole thing and lived that experience in Australia to the fullest she possibly could.

Hearing about her experience and what she did down there and what she learned and how she was different coming back, really inspired me to want to be a global citizen, to want to go abroad, to want to see and live in a different culture. That has fundamentally changed who I am. I strongly believe so. I think she has been one of my biggest inspirations over the past couple of years in that sense of independence, and really wanting to do something with your life and go abroad and see how different the world can be and how different people can be in different places.

IES Abroad: If you could give one piece of advice to future study abroad students, what would it be?

SH: I would say the same piece of advice that my program director in Granada gave me the first day when we arrived in Malaga, which is – I think a lot of people think when you go abroad, you need to go to a different country every weekend. You need to explore and see every city in the country you're in. And while those things, I do believe, are important - I think it is very enlightening and a cool experience to see different places while you're in a foreign country - to me, it's much more valuable of an experience to immerse yourself in the city that you're studying in.

I think that's what I really tried to do while I was in Spain. And because of that, I was able to meet so many Spaniards. I was able to see the culture and their life in Granada in ways that I think maybe not everybody in my program was able to. I had time to take a dance class. I had time to intern at MÍRAME, to take a class at university, and really feel like part of the Granadian culture by the time I was done there. Whereas if I went to 14 countries over the course of the semester, I don't think I would have been able to say that same thing.

I think we have our whole life to go to other countries for a short period of time, but most of us won't have the opportunity to live for, in my case, four months in one place outside of the United States. And to really be able to commit yourself fully to being an international student of that culture, can impact you a lot more than just trying to travel everywhere in that one semester.

So if there was one piece of advice I could give, I would say do your best to immerse yourself in the place that you're studying in, and that means knowing the people of that culture and what that's all about there.

“The culture and environment that lives in Granada ... made me really think a lot harder about how important my relationships are with everyone that I love.”
Sam H. • Macalester College • Granada - Study in Granada