Shakira Del Toro, undergraduate student studying English and creative writing from Aurora, Illinois, studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain, through IES during the Spring 2020 semester. While her time there was cut short due to Covid-19, she feels fortunate for the time she was able to spend abroad, and grateful for the multiple sources of scholarship funding that helped to make her study abroad experience possible. Read more below.
Shakira Del Toro in Barcelona, Spain
What motivated you to study abroad? How did you determine your study abroad location and program?
I wanted to expand my knowledge in a different culture and make connections abroad. I’ve never traveled by myself, so it was a way for me to grow as an adult. I speak Spanish fluently, so I wanted to go to a place where I could speak the language in order to get more involved with the culture and its people. IES offered a variety of classes, so I enjoyed having options for fulfilling course requirements. Barcelona is a beach town with a city vibe, so it has the best of both worlds, not to mention a hub for entertainment.
Do you have a favorite memory or two from your time in Barcelona?
For Carnival, I had the opportunity to go to Sitges and experienced wonderful parades, scenery, as well as extravagant and whimsical costumes. Everyone was in high spirits and the paella was very tasteful by the beach. The entire town participated in the event, and decorations were displayed in every corner. Another great experience was when I attended a festival where the Catalans performed “Ball de Diables,” which translates to “Dance of the Devils.” There were bulls, dragons, and a devil’s head made out of fireworks that exploded all over the place, chasing us while we laughed and danced. There were Castells, which are human towers, where people created formations that were stories high. It was a very thrilling experience.
Human towers called Castells
You did a homestay as part of your study abroad experience--what was that like?
I absolutely loved staying with my host family. They accepted me with open arms and hearts. I had three brothers who were all around my age, and two host parents. Every night, our dinners were so welcoming, delicious, and thought-provoking. I ate authentic Catalonian food and learned about politics, religion, festivals, and events in Catalan territory and Barcelona. I became educated in my host brothers’ academic endeavors and dreams, my host parents’ careers, as well as my roommate’s internship adventures. They became my second family, and we keep in touch to this day. It was a wonderful learning experience. And now, I have a family to stay with when I visit in the future.
Shakira Del Toro (center) with her host family and roommate
How did you grow personally as a result of your study abroad experience?
I had a very unique experience, compared to past semesters. I was abroad when Covid-19 hit, so I saw a lot of growth in my mentality and ability to handle unpredictable situations under large amounts of stress. As you can imagine, leaving a country from one hour to the next and no means of saying goodbye, was a very traumatic experience. I had to strategize, adapt to changes, and keep a calm composure throughout my various trips to get back home. It was an uncomfortable situation that I overcame and as a result, learned so much about myself. My communication skills, as well as my confidence improved drastically. Even though I didn’t get to finish my study abroad in Barcelona, I was still very fortunate to spend a few months there and return safely from my travels.
Did you receive scholarship funding to help support your study abroad experience?
I applied to five scholarships and received funding from all of them. It was such a rewarding experience. If it wasn’t for the scholarships, I wouldn’t have been able to study abroad in such a ritzy place like Barcelona. The university’s funding, as well as the Gilman Scholarship were very generous. I definitely recommended taking the time to apply for as many scholarships as you can because it will be worth it. There are multitudes of awards out there waiting for recipients. I am very grateful for my scholarship donors for giving me an opportunity of a lifetime.
"I am very grateful for my scholarship donors for giving me an opportunity of a lifetime."
Do you have any advice for UI students thinking about study abroad?
If you have the chance, do it! Don’t be afraid to test your comfort level, and I promise you, it will be an unforgettable experience. You will meet so many beautiful people and encounter enchanting places you will never want to leave. No dream is impossible if you put the time and effort to make it happen. Trust your advisors, trust the process, and most importantly, trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to try something new because this is where learning ignites. And finally, live in the moment and don’t put tasks or adventures off. You never know when that’s going to be your last!
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