Tuesday, November 7, 2023
Margaret Huang

During our first study abroad group meeting, prior to our departure, our program director told us that this study abroad experience might be the first time that some of us will feel like we are the other. I looked around the room and felt surprised. Growing up as one of a few Asian-Americans in my predominantly white school for the first seven years of my life had made me forget that most people don’t have the same experience of constantly feeling different from their peers. Having moved to a couple of different places and ultimately coming to the University of Iowa, I had not felt as markedly different from my peers in a long time. However, I had heard from some people that the racial and ethnic diversity in places outside of the U.S., like in Spain and in other European countries, is much less visible compared to the prevalent visible differences in the U.S. I had heard stories about people facing both subtle and explicit forms of racism while studying or traveling abroad. Although I was a little bit nervous about facing these obstacles in Spain, my excitement for finally being able to immerse myself in the Spanish language and culture outweighed any trepidation.   

My program lasted six weeks. For five of these six weeks, I lived with a host family in Valladolid and took a culture class and a literature class with local professors from the University of Valladolid. During weekends and during the last week, which was dedicated to independent and small group travel throughout Spain, I had the opportunity to travel outside of Valladolid and explore cities like Segovia, Sevilla, and Gijón. In Spain, I was surprised at how often the locals would initiate conversations and how curious they were to get to know us. While waiting for a friend in the main plaza in Valladolid one day, I sat down at a bench next to two women. Upon sitting down, one of the women turned to me and complimented my dress in Spanish. We began a conversation, and I told her about how I was learning Spanish as I was on a summer study abroad program at the university. I learned that she was from Venezuela taking care of a woman who had been born and raised in Valladolid.    

"My time abroad made me realize that I really appreciate my early life experiences of feeling like the other. Because my formative years are marked by feeling different, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable, I learned quickly to not only get used to the unfamiliar, but to welcome and look forward to the unfamiliar."

In Spain, I was markedly different from most of the people there, and I stuck out. However, I stuck out in Spain not for being Asian-American, but simply for being American. Everyone seemed to know right away that I was American or else just assumed that I was Spanish and spoke to me in Spanish. Some of my favorite moments in Spain were when I was able to have conversations with local storeowners around Spain—including a man at a bakery in Madrid, a woman at a clothing store in Valladolid, and a woman at an art store in Córdoba. I even had a chance to get to know some of the local students, either through the conversation hour, after which we would go to a café on campus and share a heaping plate of fries, or just around campus.    

My time abroad made me realize that I really appreciate my early life experiences of feeling like the other. Because my formative years are marked by feeling different, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable, I learned quickly to not only get used to the unfamiliar, but to welcome and look forward to the unfamiliar. In Spain, there were instances during which I was nervous, but I was mostly excited to embark on my new adventures. When I got sick and needed to visit the doctor’s office, my program director sent me the address of the hospital, and I went there by myself. Although I was unsure about my Spanish ability, I was able to work with the doctor (with the help of online translation services) to get a diagnosis and treatment plan. I also became very familiar with planning solo travel—booking trains, organizing itineraries, and figuring out the details of trip planning. Overall, my time abroad made me understand how my identity has contributed to my tendency to embrace the new and the unfamiliar.    

Additionally, my time abroad has reminded me of the interesting things that make up a community and are present all around me. Walking around and taking in all the little idiosyncrasies of Valladolid—the writing on the wall, the floral shrubbery on my walk to school, the bakery just outside my host family’s home—have reminded me of all that comprise my home in the U.S. and all that I need to appreciate. Having the perspective of an exchange student in Spain has made me think of another person’s experience for the first time in a place like Iowa City. The little things that may have slipped me by once before can no longer escape my notice as I stroll around and take in all that characterizes a city. 


Margaret Huang (public health and Spanish majors, chemistry minor, and pre-medicine track), a Diversity Ambassador Scholarship recipient (now the Global Access Ambassador Scholarship), participated in the Iowa Hispanic Institute program in summer 2023. 


The Global Access Ambassador Scholarship (formerly Diversity Ambassador) program provides awards to study abroad for a summer, semester, or academic year. The scholarships are intended to support students who study abroad with the intent to serve as Global Access Ambassadors upon return to the UI campus. Upon completion of the study abroad program and return to UI, award recipients are asked to submit a photo and an open letter to prospective students or suggest an alternate means of sharing with prospective students.

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


International Programs (IP) at the University of Iowa (UI) is committed to enriching the global experience of UI students, faculty, staff, and the general public by leading efforts to promote internationally oriented teaching, research, creative work, and community engagement.  IP provides support for international students and scholars, administers scholarships and assistance for students who study, intern, or do research abroad, and provides funding opportunities and grant-writing assistance for faculty engaged in international research. IP shares their stories through various media, and by hosting multiple public engagement activities each year.