Resilience Abroad: Month Three

This soul-searching series showcases my grieving process over the course of the most harrowing and heartbreaking six months of my life. It offers a window into how I worked through the processes of loss and resiliency after the passing of my beloved grandmother. Perhaps it will be of benefit to you if you are struggling to cope with a similar situation.

Tidal Wave 

Leesa Truesdell

As I mentioned in the last article, the waves kept coming and almost engulfed me. I felt like a surfer on the north shore trying to ride huge waves with a ragged, water-logged surfboard. It wasn’t until the third month after my grandmother passed that I realized what was happening. 

I had a friend point out how I had reacted about something. Shortly after this interaction, a tsunami of grief hit and it came crashing down harder than anything I had experienced before. My insides felt like they were on fire but really it was my nerves. 

I was angry. Why? I don’t really know. It is not as if it was happening all the time. The anger came in spurts and occurred for reasons that I can’t even explain. It would start with little things and then, the little things escalated into bigger things. Then, I just simply stopped caring. One of the most important persons in my life was gone, and I couldn’t process it. Period.

At this stage, my work was the only area of my life that was consistent each day.  It was the highlight of my day and, looking back, some of my best memories in Madrid were made at my workspace. I looked at each day in the classroom as my opportunity to channel my inner Tata, which gave me the strength that I needed to move past the sadness and return to the path to feeling semi-normal again.

A New Normal

I couldn’t talk about Tata or what I was feeling in my heart because it was too painful to bring up memories while I was so far from home. Instead, I built intricate walls for protection. I didn’t realize the walls were as strong and high as they were until they caused problems in my social life. 

I lost two friends because of my behavior and realized at that point that I needed to make a change. A bit thereafter, my social life started to come back to a state of normalcy. I began to open up more and the walls slowly came tumbling down.

mareez reyes quote

Month Three: Walls

“I guess it’s like a voice inside my heart; reminding me that there is nothing to fear in the things that I am afraid of.” Tove Lo

Day after day, I walked the streets of Madrid and rode the Metro listening to music on my way to work. I was going through my days trying to work through my loss. The more I walked, the more the music meant to me. 

There was one specific song on Tove Lo’s album in March that really touched my soul one morning on the Metro. It’s called Imaginary Friend, and the quote above is from that track. The song makes you think she has an imaginary friend that she calls on when she is going through a hard time. However, at the end of the track you realize there is much more to the story. This was an important insight for me, understanding that things go beyond the surface. It was a useful lesson that helped me through this time.

Tove Lo: Imaginary Friend

March was difficult in the beginning but it got better. I was on the path to building resilience. My personal life suffered because I was suppressing grief. My friends didn’t know how it was affecting me because my walls were so high. I was not as thoughtful as I could have been about how I handled certain exchanges between us. 

One of my close friends was strong enough to point out how I was reacting to certain things, and pretty much from that point on, I was more aware of things like my deliberate avoidance of using the Spanish language or becoming negative about certain things in life (that I am usually not negative about). Looking back, it was her good-natured spirit that made me alert to what was happening. I became aware of my actions and myself; I realized that I needed to make changes. Shortly thereafter, I signed up for private lessons with a Spanish conversation tutor, Enrique, who quickly became a firm friend.

There Is No Can’t In Resilience Abroad

Enrique and I

During my grief process abroad, I had a tipping point. Before the death of my grandmother, I signed up for Spanish classes at a private academy upon returning from my winter vacation. After a few lessons and the week after my grandma’s death in January, the instructor approached me after class and asked me in Spanish if I would consider moving down a level. With tears in my eyes, I turned to her and said: “Lo siento, eres muy mal profe.” 

I walked out of the academy feeling a bolt of pain in my heart that I think also contributed to the disconnect and soon detachment that I started to feel with the language. But this taught me a valuable lesson which I still draw upon as a teacher. It is so important to get to know your students and their needs.

The instructor did not realize that I was one week out from the recent death of my grandmother. It was so hard to try to make it to class, let alone try to communicate in a foreign language. I tried my best and in the end, it all worked out because I met Enrique. I realized in my first few sessions with Enrique that the previous teacher had caused me to doubt myself and subconsciously I was stalling with words that I had never had trouble with before. 

However, this was an important lesson learned for my self-growth and most importantly, my growth as a foreign and second-language teacher. I mention this part of my journey in month three because this tipping point added to my self-doubt, frustration, and anger. When the tsunami hit, there were many outside factors that contributed to the anger and frustration that I felt while living abroad. I just didn’t know why at the time.

if it doesnt open its not your door

Lesson Learned

If a student is struggling, find out more. Don’t assume it’s their proficiency level right away. Most important, don’t tell them they can’t. Many times we are so quick to doubt or blame others for their shortcomings. ENCOURAGE your students to try their best! Look beyond the surface.

Building The Essential Checklist

Here are some helpful tips that I developed as I dealt with the grieving process abroad

  1. Go out and talk to friends and coworkers etc. Try to retain as normal a routine as possible. You don’t have to share your grief, but it does help to make new memories to help the pain subside.
  2. Cry when it hurts, but don’t let it consume you. Suppressing feelings is not natural. It only results in delayed, and sometimes counterproductive, outcomes.
  3. Seek professional counseling if you feel like you can’t follow your everyday routine and you’re finding that things aren’t getting better.
  4. Avoid internalizing your sadness. Write to your family and friends back home or even to a stranger. Maybe talking to someone you don’t know as well as someone you do will help you release some of the hidden feelings you are experiencing.
  5. Take up a new hobby and find a way to focus on making it as meaningful as you can while you are abroad.
  6. Listen to feedback from friends and family. Be aware of what they say and note whether or not you need to adjust your lifestyle choices. Resilience abroad begins once you understand your behavior and its effects, and how you should adapt to be able to recover from grief in order to become your better self.

March was an incredibly complex month which is why I have broken this piece into two parts. Check out part two for more details.

students abroad

teaching abroad

by Leesa Truesdell


Even As I Left Florida…

In a time that feels so far away now, I remember reading a book about a painter obsessed with portraying Paradise. She dreamed about completion, about fulfilling her purpose in life, yet she couldn’t face her own problems. Whenever she encountered serious trouble, she packed up, bought a plane ticket and then was gone. She eventually rediscovered herself through those sudden escapes from her home, her country, herself. Even when the reason behind a trip is just to run away, you can never really not learn anything from a trip. It doesn´t need to be so far, you don´t need to feel a jet lag for a fresh start, a well-deserved rest of your routine, a break from yourself, the version of “you” stacked with duties to fulfill.

Jack and me at the coffee shop. Jack was my conversation partner.
Photo credit: Jack Levine

There’s been only one trip that I could say that I made without a hidden intention of running away. On the contrary, I didn’t wanted to go at first. I didn’t want to jeopardize what I had with my significant other. I went however. She kissed me farewell and then I went. How curious is how life works. I wonder where would my life be if I hadn’t been bored at my place and if I hadn’t gone to school early in order to distract myself from boredom. Long story short: A notice from my school’s humanities department was sent to me.  It offered a chance to win a scholarship to study abroad. I took a chance and I went for it.  Finally, my lonely childhood beside a monitor pushing buttons paid off.  No one from my philosophy department really knew English, so suddenly I became a serious contender for the scholarship. A letter to the governor and several hours waiting in line and I was confirmed as one of the lucky people who got the scholarship to study English in the USA.


My interview with El Consulado de Mexico en Orlando about my scholarship.

American Dreams

I want to learn. I’m curious about everything. But I would be a liar if I told you that I wanted to spend all my time studying in the US. I wanted to know the place! I wanted to talk to people, to walk long distances, to see as much as I could and immerse myself in a brand-new way of seeing and appreciating life. As a Mexican, I’m hopelessly soaked with the fragrance of the American Dream. A place that seemed to me like a place where everyone has a chance, as long as (s)he has the courage to go for it. A place where you´re not entitled to happiness, but rather the country gives you the means to get it for yourself.

I was so excited, but I was also terrified. You don’t pause your life when you travel, you can´t get away from yourself when you go far. A friend of mine has a catch phrase that goes: “Wherever you go, there you will be”. The first time I heard it I thought he went crazy. But as years go by, now I see the wisdom in that phrase: I was putting my life on pause for two months, just to see what life could be like someplace else. The amazing person that I had the fortune to call my teacher during my time in Tallahassee said to us that we were brave. Now I think we were.

Isn’t she beautiful?

Photo credit: Jack Levine

Florida looks so beautiful from up high. The moss so green swarming the earth, sprinkled with lots of blues here and there. But oh, my god, the heat! It’s like being in an oven. In all my delightful staying I never really got used to the heat. Thank God for AC. The people were so nice, everyone was so up front, not friendly but definitely not cranky, gloomy or moody. That´s how I like strangers, a little skeptical of strangers, but willing to help a person in need. Everyone was so nice to me. I promised myself that I would try to be more talkative with people, since I´m really comfortable with silence, but it was ridiculous to go all this way just to be quiet. You learn a lot from travels, talking to people and reading a lot. I´m not the brightest guy in the land, so I can’t spare the chance to learn something. And I learned a lot. From classes, obviously, but I learned the most from the people in Tallahassee, walking in those peaceful streets and parks.

Opening your senses and enjoying the moment. I think most of our concerns about past and future come from not really being “in the moment”.  Worrying about your problems instead of enjoying the fact that you’re in a foreign land, where no one knows your name, where you can be anything you want to be. So, I tried to enjoy the moment as much as I could.

Walk the walk

There’s several ways to get to know a culture, a town. First of all, don’t Uber yourself to elsewhere. Walk. Enjoy the view. Forget about your life as much as you can. Feel the breeze, the heat in your forehead, the sun way up high. Talk to people, be as friendly as you can, take interest in what they do, where they come from and what they think about life. I ask a lot of people what they think the American Dream represents, for instance. Something that works for me is imagining myself as a reporter interviewing everybody. Don´t push, but be curious. Another way to do it is visiting retail stores or even garage sales.  Where one person might see a bunch of meaningless stuff at a garage sale, another knows that there is a life represented by all those things.  There are stories about the house, the people, the past. As I said, be curious whether you´re at the mall or you´re in an art shop. Another way is going to restaurants. I wanted to eat at a waffle house at two in the morning like an American movie cliché, a pizza at night on Gaines Street where you can find out why they keep open the place at night, perhaps grab a beer at a bar while listening to some really good live jazz. Check. Check. Check.

By forcing myself to go out and interact I met a lot of interesting people. It’s fascinating how much you can accomplish when you talk to people. I was invited to perform at a coffee shop, I read some of my short stories and they were very well received. I discussed philosophy and poetry in the middle of the night, I covered a duo version of Wish You Were Here with a friend. I crashed at a friend´s place, I played pool with a coquette woman named Casey and I met a smart and beautiful model at a blues concert (Hi, Victoria).  I also visited some pubs, I sang with strangers to the rhythms of Neil Diamond and I met some very talented musicians from the jazz scene from Tallahassee. One of them now lives in New Orleans and he´s going to make it big. Cheers to all of them.

My certificate of completion and last day of class.

To all the people who showed me stereotypes are just ridiculous assumptions, thank you. No one judged me, I judged no one. We just live life as we can, as best as we can, in a way that brings us joy and we share it with the people we care about. Maybe it’s all about perspective. Like the perspective this trip gave me. The notions that I felt. The feel that I could really make it someplace else, that I´m not trapped in a city, in a way of living, in a career severely discredited by current academic thought. Not that I wanted to, but it was good to know that I could get a job at a coffee shop, live with some friends, save money to get a car or pay for classes and potentially build a new life. It’s nice to know things can work out. That you can make the best from even the worst-case scenario, like sleeping in a rented bed in a rented room, with summer friends near you, and the AC going silently in the night whispering a lullaby.

The experience I had in Tallahassee left a great taste in my mouth. Looking to the future I know I will travel again.  I will visit another country and I will also come back to Florida.  I could live in a place like Tallahassee because it’s something between a small city or a big town. It filled my mind with memories and anecdotes that will dance within me as long as I live.

Going Back to San Lorenzo to Teach

I didn’t think the time would come where I would be writing a wrap-up on Cate’s Madrid adventure. Or, am I? When I said my goodbyes to Cate in June (a goodbye I won’t forget), I knew our time to laugh together would come again soon. What I didn’t expect was that it would be in Florida! Yes, that’s right — Florida! The very place that ignited our first conversation over a year ago and started our friendship. It was great to catch up and see each other outside of Madrid. Read along and see what she has planned next!

Your main goal in coming to Madrid was to learn Spanish. How did you do?

My primary goal in coming to Spain was to learn enough Spanish to be able to have a basic conversation. If I really focus on the concept of “basic,” I think I achieved that. Barely. I certainly added a huge amount of vocabulary and some grammar. However, with less than half of my time there left, I had only just started to try to string together actual sentences. As it is for so many struggling second-language learners, getting out of my own head is my biggest obstacle.”

You also spoke about traveling. Did you get to see many countries while living abroad?

I was much more successful with my goal of traveling! I’m pretty proud of this list, so here it is… I went to: London, Paris, Copenhagen, Gibraltar, all through Ireland, Amsterdam, spent an hour in Tangier (crazy story), and saw a lot of Spain by car and train. Being able to see so much of Europe in such a short time was absolutely mind-blowing.”

In your previous interview, you mentioned that you were speaking and teaching English most of the time. What can you tell us about learning Spanish through immersion?

teaching students in SpainThe process of learning Spanish, or attempting to, was certainly not what I had expected. To be completely (and embarrassingly) honest, I thought that merely by living in Spain for 10 months, the language  somehow would seep into my brain and I’d speak it without even realizing how it happened! Wrong.

First of all, I found the four-week immersion class practically useless, for me anyway. It was too much all at once and I wasn’t able to digest virtually any of it. What progress I did make came from private, weekly lessons and the homework I received. And when everything was said and done, the ONLY thing that caused any of it to “stick” in my brain was actually using it (with Spanish friends). Some people received the gift to easily pick up new languages… I’m not one of those people, but I keep plugging away.”

What was your most memorable moment in class? Do you miss your students?

“There are a few students that I miss and one that I have kept in touch with. For the most part, however, I didn’t form any real bonds with most of the kids. Schools strictly forbade auxiliars from speaking Spanish with students. The language barrier at my school felt virtually impenetrable. I’m sorry to report that the most memorable occasions all felt extraordinarily negative. I saw some extremely challenging students who created some unforgettable scenes. It seemed unfortunate for everyone involved.”

What do you miss most about San Lorenzo de El Escorial?

“I miss everything about San Lorenzo except for the ubiquitous dog poop everywhere. I miss being able to walk to everything. Undoubtedly, I miss the vistas of the mountains and the monastery, the cheap whiskey and wine, and the antiquity of it all. It’s certainly a magical little town.”

What have you been doing this summer?

“This summer… what have I been doing? It was so disorienting to be back that it took me several weeks to really feel ‘normal’ and completely unpack (shame). I went up to spend a few days with my sister in Cape Cod. I’ve helped one daughter and her husband a bit around their house. I helped the other one move to Boston for a new job. Lately, I’ve been driving for Uber on the weekends.”

I think we all want to know… Will you return to San Lorenzo for Round 2?

It looks as if I am going back, for a few reasons. First of all, I have a job there and that’s more than I can say for here. Secondly, I’ll have medical insurance there and that’s a huge deal for an old broad like me. Then there’s the Spanish that I still want to learn and the lifestyle of Spain that I enjoy so much. I’m just not done “adventuring” yet.”

Going back to San Lorenzo to Teach

while living abroad in spain

And, here we go! Of the people I interviewed, Cate was certainly the one I thought would have a different ending. When I asked her for her quote for her second interview, she provided this one, “I stopped telling myself that I’m lost. I’m not and am on a road with no destination, I’m just driving with hope that I’ll find a place that I like and I’ll stay there. I’m not lost, I’m on my way.” – Ahunnaya

After one year of knowing Cate and having the pleasure to call her my friend, I can say without a doubt that she has found her way and is headed back to her “place,” San Lorenzo, to continue her Dreams Abroad.

by Leesa Truesdell

A Million Mile Dream to Becoming an Educator

by Dalal Boland

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” – Aristotle

About nine years ago, after graduating from high school, I decided to entertain the thought of becoming an educator. I hadn’t fully accepted the career choice. My parents pushed teaching, but I didn’t like it. It had been my mother’s dream to become a teacher. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to because she was unable to attend university.

I decided to make her dream come true by becoming one myself. When I started taking education courses at my university, the spark of love for education ignited. The rich content about different language theories genuinely excited me. My passion grew the more I worked with the program. I loved learning about how to prepare lesson plans and how language is taught. I knew then that this was the right major for me.

Deciding on Becoming an Educator in Language Education

I decided that, after I got my high school diploma, I would pursue an advanced degree. I spent four years at Gulf University for Science and Technology, located in West Mishref, Kuwait. There, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Education.

I was so passionate about studying abroad. Even before graduating from GUST, I began taking the tests needed to get into an American college. This included taking high-stakes English tests for international students. I also needed to take the GRE and apply for scholarships. In addition, I started looking for universities accredited by Kuwait’s Culture Office. I did this by going through the list on their website and writing down application deadlines in order not to miss the dates.

college diploma

Preparing for Admission for Ten Universities

After taking the tests, I started applying. I applied to more than ten universities. Ultimately, I received five acceptance letters. I had to make a choice of which university I would attend. I decided to attend Florida State University. There, I overcame a seemingly endless number of obstacles before and after joining FSU. Nonetheless, I have earned my Masters of Science in Curriculum and Instruction with a major in Foreign and Second Language Education — the major that I am most passionate about. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to pursue education as a career, even if I had originally been forced!

If you have any questions about living, studying or traveling abroad take a look at our question and answer forum. We also have an online Facebook community that will surely connect you with other like-minded travelers.

The Real Madrid: Meet Victoria

by Victoria Beckler

Exuberant. Buzzing. Magnificent. These are some of the words that came to my mind when I arrived in Madrid. Meet the real Madrid. I knew it was going to be great, but nothing can prepare you for the feeling you get when you know you have made the right choice. It can be overwhelming to be someplace so different from home, but I know this will be one of the best times of my life. I knew a fair bit about the city because my dad has visited Madrid frequently during the last ten years. Once I arrived, I completely understood his praise and then some. I fell in love with Madrid.

living abroad madrid spain ellen hietsch ally what i know now

First Days in the Real Madrid

On one of my first days here, I took a double-decker tour bus around the city to get my bearings. The city was alive and people! I had not researched Madrid much beforehand. It was a very beneficial tour because it helped me to decide on the places I wanted to visit and to establish my sense of direction. The real Madrid was meant to be taken in with sites, sounds, smells and tastes.

Combined with suggestions from friends and family, my list of planned adventures grew quickly. During my first weekend in Madrid, I walked over 30 miles exploring the various museums, parks, historical sites, and even saw an American film. Even after being here for over a month, I feel there is no shortage of exploration to be done.


New Chapter in my Life Starting My Internship

Once it became time for my internship to begin, I could not have been more enthused to start this new chapter in my life. Before I came to Spain, I was interning in a criminal law firm near my college. Now I am interning in an international, civil law firm in another country! The firm for which I work primarily assists ex-patriots from the United Kingdom who have business affairs in Spain, therefore, the lawyers must speak English and Spanish and must be proficient in both legal systems. There was one aspect, however, that I hadn’t expected. I had anticipated my hours being quite short since I am an unpaid intern, maybe 10:00 to 15:00. To my surprise, the Spanish workday is quite long and, because we work lawyers hours, our’ are even longer than normal. My hours are 09:30 to 19:30 with an hour break for lunch.

Initially, of course, researching, translating, and understanding Spanish law for 9 hours a day was mentally and physically exhausting for me. I will be forever grateful for this experience, no matter what hurdles I must overcome. The work is interesting and I love my coworkers. I know I will learn a lot about the law and the Spanish language!

First Day of an Internship in Madrid

by Hisham Tammam

First Day of an Internship in Madrid was interesting, to say the least. Obviously, I wanted to make a great impression at my internship at a law firm. I arrived early (luckily, because there was no number on the gate so I had to determine it was the right building by deduction.)

After ringing the bell of a stylish wooden door with golden handles, I was greeted warmly by the person whom I was told to ask for and given the grand tour of the two-floor Madrid law firm that would be my place of employment. I was to sit on the upper floor with an associate who arrived as I was researching past cases handled by the firm. After that, one of my supervisors, a partner at the firm, gave me a rundown of an international arbitration case concerning the Arabic aspects of a law that I was to assist on. I was later handed the case file by another associate with whom I was going to be working. Familiarizing myself with the details was actually quite riveting.

first day internship madrid law office

Lunch at an Internship at a Law Firm

For lunch, my supervisor took me and two co-workers to an authentic Galician seafood restaurant. They spoke about Brexit, a popular topic among lawyers in Europe, and how crowded Madrid is with tourists and foreigners. So, although I felt a little awkward, it was still lovely, fancy, and almost surreal.

I had been nervous about starting a four-month internship at a law firm. It was daunting because I’ve never worked at a firm for that long before. However, I decided to take it one day at a time (if not one hour at a time.)

I was planning to delve into literature, philosophy and poetry writing (my passions), but I barely have any time because I work from 9am to 7pm every day. On the other hand, because of this, I tend to enjoy them more when I do get a chance. It sure beats living at home where, even when I had all the time in the world, I wouldn’t touch a book (due to a vicious cycle of what I call “apathetic stagnation.”) At least now, thanks to The Intern Group, I feel useful and productive, going to work and transcending fears.

Working settles the existential need to have a purpose – doing things of value, feeling more fulfilled. Even though I am a chronic insomniac, I have manage to overcome this and other obstacles with determination and willpower. Plus, I have the privilege of learning a new language – perhaps never to the extent that I will be able to read Don Quixote in Español (whose hometown we visited) – but I can gladly say I now know more than just ‘manzana’, (which means apple and is one of the few words I learned before I got here).

madrid church down town

My Take Away From My First Day of an Internship in Madrid

I truly had an excellent first day of work in Madrid. It was full of promise, and so is life right now after applying for a paralegal job in London. It will be challenging to leave Madrid since it feels like home. I can honestly say it has been a wonderful adventure. I can’t wait for the next chapter of my life. Here’s to my first day of an Internship in Madrid.