Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Isabella Senno
A smiling Isabella Senno in front of blue gate

Hello all,

My name is Isabella Senno and I am a senior working towards degrees in anthropology (gender and culture track), and psychology, along with a Spanish minor. Over the spring of 2019, I was able to study abroad in San Sebastián, Spain. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that this was one of the best decisions I have made during my time here at the University of Iowa.

I am Latina. Both sides of my family tree have their roots in Central and South America. However, Spanish has always been a bit of a personal albatross. It hasn’t been my primary language since I was three years old. I spent most of my time in high school being shuffled between different heritage learners and honors language classes, downshifted and upgraded as administrators tried to find the place where I fit in. The only trouble was that I didn’t click in anywhere. I was too advanced to be taught alongside the non-Latinx students, but struggled to grasp content in courses geared towards an all-Latinx audience. My speech was passable at best, slipshod at worst.

In my experience as a Latina in America, the unconscious expectation was that I would be able to speak with some kind of magical, almost biologically driven fluency. This became a message that I internalized.

Doubt wormed its way into my mind as I questioned if I would ever be able to truly communicate in the native language of my mother, my father, my grandparents -- my closest family. Instead of a source of joy, Spanish instead became a well of anxiety, a shoe that always gave a blister no matter how hard I tried to break it in.

That all changed when I went to Spain. There, both the classrooms and the environment outside of them, were devoid of the pressure, shame and guilt I had come to associate with my own personal Spanish. In my experience as an American in a foreign country, the expectation was that I would have at least some difficulty with the language.

"Let me put this in the simplest way possible. I went abroad so that I could come home again."

For the first time in my Spanish career, I was unburdened by the toxic standards perpetuated by pan-ethnic stereotyping in the United States. I was in a place where I was allowed to be “bad” at Spanish, where my growth could be flexible, where I gave myself permission to make mistakes and recognize that these errors didn’t mean that I was failing -- they meant that I was learning . Unshackled from negative thought patterns and placed within welcoming surroundings, my Spanish skills skyrocketed. In a matter of weeks, I went from fumbling messy sentences to being able to write entire essays with ease, from not even being able to recognize the subjunctive to actually using it, from avoiding casual conversations to initiating them with my program-provided intercambio.

I was accepted as I was. I was not judged for the level that I was at. The locals who I met were not only understanding of my hesitations, but truly wanted to help me overcome them. I’m still in contact with my language partner, a wonderful local student named Ana who is learning English. Instead of sinking into our inaccuracies when it came to secondary languages, it turned out tobe one of the similarities we bonded over and joked about. We would sit in various pintxos bars around town, whiling away a few hours snacking and teaching each other new words, trading vocabulary terms and pronunciations and cultural quirks.

In a single semester away I made more progress than in over eight years of formal Spanish education. After almost a decade of feeling like a piece of my identity was missing, I am finally able to hold a full conversation with my grandmother in Spanish and see her smile in a new way at my accomplishment.

Let me put this in the simplest way possible. I went abroad so that I could come home again.

Here’s to the next adventure,

Isabella Senno


Please note that the opinions and views expressed by diversity ambassadors are solely those of the students and do not reflect or represent the views of International Programs or the University of Iowa.