The summer of 2019 is one that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I was given the incredible opportunity to travel abroad to Cadiz, Spain and conduct international research alongside other amazing peers. As I reflect on nine weeks of research, travel, and new experiences, it’s difficult to reflect on it as a single event in my life. Although nine weeks seems small in the grand scheme of things, when each day offers something new and exciting, nine weeks can seem like a small forever. This is somewhat paradoxical, though; in retrospect, this summer went by in the blink of an eye.
As this was my first time conducting my own research project, I was a bit nervous when I first arrived at the University of Cadiz. However, I had the privilege of working under two knowledgeable professors who established excellent communication with me from the very beginning. Before I arrived, and even during my first few weeks, I became well-read in the scientific literature pertaining to plant carnivory and nectar composition. This provided me with an excellent foundation upon which I began my research. My professors were both deeply involved with many on-going projects within the university, but always made time to help me when it was needed. I may be a little biased, but I think my data collection was the most fun compared to that of my cohort. The nature of my project required long days in the field (and by field, I mean in the middle of the Spanish heathlands, away from the campus).
From reading previous literature alongside my own ideas of how conducting research worked, I was expecting my project to work smoothly. I learned that research is not at all like that. When I read published papers, I thought of them as the “success stories”; I wasn’t thinking about all the re-do’s and try-again’s. Research is trial and error. It’s problem-solving. And, sometimes, it’s thinking outside the box that you are taught inside in classes.
While I spent a lot of time in the lab or in the field, I placed importance on exploring Spain and its unique culture. I remember within the first week of the program, my roommates and I sat down to plan weekend trips for each weekend of the summer. I planned trips with these guys before I really even knew them. This gave us the chance to get to know each other by traveling to unfamiliar places. I can honestly say some of my favorite memories were our weekend getaways. I was able to travel to some breath-taking Spanish cities on the weekends: Barcelona, Sevilla, Madid, Tarifa, and Ronda. I’ll never forget the time I hiked a preserved Roman road in La Ruta de Los Pueblos Blancos. Or the time I saw Africa from a shore in southern Spain. Or even when I stumbled upon emerald pools while hiking along a gorge in Ronda. Spain is a country filled with natural beauty and rich culture at every turn. I am so grateful that I was able to take advantage and see for myself what some only see in photographs.
Making friends in Cadiz is very easy. Maybe it was due the boldness I felt while abroad, or maybe due to the easygoing air most Spanish people have about them, but I felt comfortable asking anyone for help or directions. I found myself asking a lot of questions while working in the lab. Sometimes my mentors weren’t available, so I would turn to my peers. Talking with native speakers who were my age improved my Spanish and also fostered several friendships. Some of the students I met even came to support my final presentation.
There are many things I miss about Spanish culture and society. First and foremost, the food. Tapas, or small shareable dishes, are an essential part to every meal. The table feels more intimate when everyone is sharing the same meal. Secondly, I miss the timing in Spain. That is to say, I miss being able to slow down. Spanish people don’t rush from one place to the next. There is a cushion of time in case lunch last three hours (yes, it happens) or if you run into an old friend and need to catch up with them. From an American’s perspective I did not expect the lack of a strict schedule, especially considering I was working at a university. However, this is not to say Spanish people are lazy; in fact, I learned they are some of the hardest working people. But, there is a time to work, a time to play, and a time for a siesta. Overall, I would say I miss living in the now, a mindset that I think Americans could benefit from.
I knew while applying to this program that, if I was accepted, it would change my life. It has definitely impacted my career goals both short and long term. It has made me a more focused and competent student. I am now excited to finish my final year of undergraduate studies with new skills and knowledge. In particular, two of my upcoming classes go hand in hand with my research project; I am excited to take these courses with applicable outside experience. This iREU program gave me the motivation and confirmation that I wanted to continue on to graduate studies. I was able to confirm that I do want to work internationally in the long-term. I found a passion in learning of other cultures. I find that you won’t grow if you surround yourself by people who are the same as you. And I will be forever grateful for all that I have learned from this study abroad experience.
Although I’ve painted a pretty picture of the study abroad experience, there were definitely struggles and homesickness along the way. Each new experience came with its learning curve. The troubles of experiencing culture shock and breaking language barriers suddenly became worth it though because I was able to grow and learn every single day. Through this program, I have gained invaluable research experience that will excel me as I continue in academia. Excluding the academic research, living in a foreign country and experiencing a new culture enabled me to grow personally. I became more independent and confident with myself. Most importantly, I learned from the Spanish that slowing down to simply enjoy life is never a waste of time.
Braley Gentry is majoring in Biology (General). Braley participated in the Summer 2019 international summer learning opportunity for students offered through the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors. The International Summer Undergraduate Research Program represents a collaboration between The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the University of Cadiz in Spain. The purpose of the initiative is to support students to participate in an eight (8) week intensive research experience during the summer in a global environment. Braley had the following to say about studying abroad, “If you get the chance to study abroad, GO! It will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. Lose yourself in another culture, environment, and way of life. Don’t forget to come home with some great stories!”
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