Thought-provoking. Profound. Relatable. These are just a few of the words we keep repeating as we describe our 2015-16 Study Abroad Blogger of the Year, Ashley Simmons.
Ashley, a rising senior at Brandeis University, studied abroad in Granada, Spain, on the IES Abroad Study in Granada Program in Spring 2016. As an IES Abroad blogger, she shared her journey through self-reflective poetry and prose that took readers along the adventure with her. Her writing prowess earned her five Editor’s Choice recognitions for her blog posts—meaning more than a third of her posts are what we consider to be some of the best posts out there.
We recently spoke with Ashley to congratulate her on the news. Read more from our interview:
IES ABROAD: Tell us a bit about yourself and your study abroad blog.
Ashley Simmons: The first thing I always start off with when talking about myself is that I’m a writer and an artist, and writing is something that’s not only extremely important to me, but is who I am.
I write whenever I can (I even write in my sleep and wake up to notebooks scribbled with semi-comprehensible bits and pieces of stories and poetry). My love for art has also been a key component in orchestrating my experience of the world into something concrete and also as something that I, and others, can learn from. I’ve always wanted to help people in some way and find that I can do that through my writing.
IES ABROAD: What was your favorite post to write and why?
AS: I’m torn between picking my first post or my last post, but I guess I’ll say my first was my favorite because I remember being so terrified of getting ready to go study abroad in a different country on a whole different continent, rushing to pack my mind and the previous semester in my suitcase with all of my belongings, and yet I was able to sit down and write something concrete for myself to hold onto.
I went back to that post from time to time to remind myself of my own goals for being abroad and even for what I expected from myself as a blogger, sharing everything with others.
IES ABROAD: What was the most rewarding part about being a blogger?
AS: The most rewarding part was being able to have a platform to push myself to continue writing and growing as an artist. I was initially worried I wouldn’t be able to write as much as I wanted to while abroad. By being required to write three posts monthly, I was able to keep up with my writing and myself simultaneously.
IES ABROAD: And the most challenging part?
AS: The most challenging part was figuring out where to start each post as I was constantly having new experiences, and didn’t have a concrete marker for each one, but instead had to find what I wanted to pull out of everything happening around me to produce something for others to read.
IES ABROAD: What advice do you have for students with a study abroad blog?
AS: For both students with a study abroad blog and students studying abroad in general: Remember that this is your experience to have and to remain open-minded throughout all of it. There are things you are about to learn about yourself, and parts of yourself you’re about to give birth to that you couldn’t have imagined before. You’re going to go through things you wouldn’t have expected and you’re not going to understand them all at the time, but also remember they’re all stepping stones to getting you to where and who you need to be. Throughout all of this, write, write, write, and write some more. Use your lessons and experiences to guide your writing and art, and use your writing and art to guide your lessons and experiences just the same.
IES ABROAD: What was the most impactful part of the Study in Granada program, and why did you choose to study abroad in Granada?
AS: The sense of community and closeness in Granada and amongst everyone in the Granada program really helped me feel safe and like I was in a home away from home. I was comfortable navigating the streets of the city and quickly found cafes and restaurants where I was a regular. The comfort of the city and the people there helped me feel more comfortable in myself, as well, and I was able to explore so much more than just Granada as a result of it.
If you’re looking to see unbelievable scenery, meet great people, absorb beautiful culture and tradition, and even climb huge mountains, Granada is the place to go.
AS: Studying abroad has taken my perception of the world and exploded it like a supernova. I’ve always considered myself to be open-minded and appropriately curious—largely because my mother raised me to be that way—but exploring different countries increased that tenfold.
As I traveled throughout Spain, Italy, France, and even further on to Morocco, I found a hunger growing inside of me to see more and share more, hear more of people’s experiences and lifestyles. To see where I fit in in these different places where love and art and kindness, hope, joy, history and culture existed. I’m freer to be myself; I know who I am in a different language and a different culture because I created that person and held her close and, in the process, became proud of her. I don’t think I would’ve had that without leaving the comfort of my spaces here at home.
The real danger about leaving the country and going to another is that going home will never be the same again. You’ll always hunger for more and never again see the world with the one-track, tunnel-visioned perception you had of it being just you. Yes, it is you, and, yes, it’s your life to live, but you’re a part of something so much greater. I think in two languages now, and Granada still feels like a dream sometimes; I don’t think I’ll ever stop yearning for it.
IES ABROAD: What are your plans for the future?
AS: In the near future I’m going to be serving as an Undergraduate Departmental Representative for the Creative Writing department at my school. I think this position will be a great way for me to share my love for writing and creativity with students interested in the department and those who may not see the ways in which creative writing can play a role in their field.
I’ll be a Peer Mentor for the Student Support Services Program at my school, as well, and am looking to pay it forward to incoming freshmen and pass along some tips for success and college student life hacks. Any of the little things I learned along the way that I wish someone had told me—I’d like to give that back to someone else.
I’m also an IES Abroad Ambassador now, so I can share my experience and tips in that respect, too. Hopefully my narrative can somehow provide students with the push they may need to take the chance and go out and learn new things about themselves and the world beyond their comfort zones with open minds. I also think it’d be very valuable to students of color to know my personal experience as a black woman studying in a different country and how my own culture played a role in my understanding of others.
In the spring semester, I’ll be working with one of my favorite professors to put together a chapbook of my poetry for a Senior Honors Project that I’d like to publish in the future.
IES ABROAD: Anything else you’d like to share?
AS: I’d like to say thank you to all of the staff in Granada and at IES Abroad, not only for this award, but also for the opportunity to write this blog and share my photos, prose, and poetry. Thank you for all of your conversations and light and love, and thank you for your encouragement and passion, too.
And of course, always, thank you to my mother for all of your undying support and love. Thank you for being there, even in a different time zone, for every single stressful moment and for continuing to teach me lessons and keep me lifted from so far away. I don’t know if there’s ever really a way to thank you enough for all that you have fostered, but I will always try to show you just how proud I am to be your daughter and to be so loved by you.
Thank you, Ashley, for sharing your journey with us. Congratulations on this award—it is much deserved!
Want to read more from our students? Student bloggers share their unique study abroad adventures through writing, photo, video, and more.