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Swimming in New Waters

Natalie Labonge (far right) said she gained confidence and independence by studying abroad. She also cherishes the friendships she made.

Studying abroad allows students to apply their learning to the real world as they gain first-hand experience with other cultures, languages, traditions and people. It also teaches students a lot about themselves as they navigate new, unfamiliar environments.  This Q&A is part of a series highlighting how Humanities and Social Sciences students have incorporated study abroad into their undergraduate career.

Natalie Labonge is a junior majoring in Communication and Spanish who studied abroad in Spain during summer 2015.  An academically strong student with a double major, Natalie is also a member of NC State’s Women’s Swimming Team, and was thrilled to fit a study abroad experience into her busy schedule.

What sparked your interest in study abroad?

Studying abroad had been in the back of my mind for years as something I would love to do, and I saw several friends who were able to study abroad. I never thought it would be feasible with my schedule, especially as a collegiate athlete. However, one of my Spanish classes required us to attend the study abroad fair and I saw that there were several opportunities that might work for the summer, so I started to plan.  

Describe your experience.

I studied in Segovia, Spain, from May 10 – June 8, 2015, as a part of the Spanish: Language, Technology, and Culture program. Segovia is a beautiful, small city about an hour from Madrid. The architecture, culture and charm of Segovia made me feel like I was in a fairy tale every day. I could walk anywhere I needed to go in the city. There were 26 students in the program, and we each lived with a different host family. I was enrolled in 6 credit hours, taking two Spanish classes, one taught by Professor James McConnell of NC State and the other by a local Spanish professor. We met for class almost every day, but also had the opportunity to travel to many different cities around Spain, including Madrid, Barcelona and Toledo — to name a few. I was also able to kayak, hike and tour castles.

How did studying abroad relate to your major, career, or personal goals?  

I am majoring in Spanish and Communication (Public Relations), and I knew the best way to improve my Spanish speaking skills was to live in a Spanish-speaking country and immerse myself in both the language and culture. I also did not know when I would ever have an opportunity like this again. I wanted to travel, meet new people and learn about other cultures first-hand.

What are some things you learned?

I learned so much Spanish and general European history. Segovia is more than 2,000 years old, and the architecture is incredible. I have newfound appreciation for architecture after living in a city with a Roman aqueduct, magnificent cathedral, and a castle that housed many kings and queens. I learned about the Spanish lifestyle, siesta, food and nightlife. I visited museums and historic sites, but also learned a lot just by interacting with my host family. Talking to them every evening and watching the news together improved my speaking abilities tremendously. I learned about their political system and the current issues Spanish people face. In a practical sense, I have become an experienced traveler — much more confident and independent.

What were some of the challenges?

Initially adjusting to the language was very challenging. I had to get used to the local Spanish, which is very different than communicating in a classroom setting. Living with a host family was a bit intimidating at first, but my host mom and dad were absolutely wonderful. I had to learn my way around the city, how to withdraw and budget my money, and other aspects of daily living. It was hard to stick to a regular schedule of exercise, but I managed to swim from time to time and stay fairly active.

What were some of the rewards?

I met some incredible people during my time abroad. It is amazing to say that I have a family still in Spain that I know I could return to. Saying goodbye to my host family was harder than I could have imagined. It is cliché to say, but I truly have memories that will last forever. I strongly encourage students to study abroad. Start by going to the study abroad fair, or looking on the university website. It was definitely one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I would not trade the experience for the world.