Reflections on Race and Ethnicity
Dear Prospective Student,
My name is Alexa Squire, and I am a junior here at the University of Iowa majoring in Spanish and English. I grew up in Ames, Iowa. I am biracial; my father's side is African American and my mother's side is Caucasian. It's pretty much a no-brainer that my brother and I were two of the only students of color at our schools growing up.
During the spring of my sophomore year, I studied abroad in Alcalá de Henares, Spain (a small town about a half hour away from Madrid). It's hard to describe my study abroad experience without using a lot of clichés: it was life-changing, eye-opening, and priceless. However, before I left I was quite nervous about how my racial identity might be perceived in a different country. I was used to being the only biracial girl in my classes, but a small town in Spain might not have had an African American study abroad student before.
When I got to Spain, I got a completely different reception than I had planned. Some Spaniards are very critical of Americans and hold quite a few untrue stereotypes about us (just as many of us do about them). My host sister and brothers asked me how many times a week I ate pizza and hamburgers, and exclaimed that I was a lot skinnier than they expected. My host mom confided in me how disgusting she thought it was that Americans sleep in the same bed as our pets sometimes.
All of the other American students in my program were Caucasian, and they were asked the same sort of questions by their host families, yet the reactions we got when we were out in public were quite different. Because I'm not blonde and blue-eyed, Spaniards didn't guess that I was an American. For once in my life, I didn't stand out. My friends were the constant subjects of catcalls of ¡Guapa! and ¡Rubia! while they were walking to class, but I heard very few. Shopkeepers automatically spoke to my friends in English (expected them to be Americans on vacation) but no one blinked when I spoke to them in Spanish. Though it was difficult for my friends to stand out so much while we were in Spain, they often told me that the best part of studying abroad was being able to show those Spaniards that their stereotypes were wrong: American students can be polite, culturally aware, and smart when they are abroad.
It was a relief to not stand out while I was in Spain, but my experience also pointed out something more important: I had expected the Spaniards to act a certain way towards me because of the stereotypes I had about them. Things worked both ways: I found out that my preconceived notions about another culture weren't necessarily accurate while they found out their stereotypes of Americans weren't necessarily true, either. To me, that's the beauty of study abroad–being able to learn so much about another culture that you end up proving yourself wrong.
Though all of that sounded pretty tough, study abroad is definitely worth it! I would say without hesitation that it was the best semester of my college career thus far, and it ended up making me want to travel even more. I met some amazing people while I was abroad, perfected my language skills, saw some breathtaking sights, and took EVERYTHING in!