The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Race and Ethnicity: Learning language in Spain and Iceland

August 9th, 2013

Dear Prospective Student,

Soley Thorsteindottir studying abroad in Spain

My name is Soley Thorsteinsdottir and I am studying civil engineering. I spent my junior year abroad in Spain and then in Iceland. I spent 4 months in each place trying to learn their respective languages. I only completed one engineering class while abroad so the year felt academically easy, but I found the challenge of learning a language and all its cultural cues very difficult. The most difficult part was getting over the embarrassment of thinking my language skill were inadequate. I found that the only times I practiced was when I was better at Spanish or Icelandic than my acquaintance was at English.

Studying abroad didn’t affect me the same way so many people talk about it. To me the semester in Spain just felt like one big party. I left really happy that my fluency had increased more than I expected it to while taking only one Spanish class.  I made some friends, but most of them turned out to be Americans. I didn’t leave nostalgic or like my entire world had changed, but part of that was due to excitement about arriving in Iceland.

Soley Thorsteindottir studying abroad in Iceland

I was born and raised in the US but my father is from Iceland. My family visits Iceland every other year for Christmas and some summers in between. We also celebrate many of our holidays in the Icelandic tradition. Since I was young I have been able to read and pronounce the language although I was never able to say more than ‘thank you for dinner’. I grew up thinking Iceland was the greatest country in the world so much so that I would deny my American identity while in the States. After all I have an Icelandic name, citizenship, passport and I was raised the Icelandic way. The only catch to this was when we visited the country. To an Icelander I was considered American since I didn’t speak Icelandic and had grown up in the US. I always had an underlying annoyance with this because there were so many things I disliked about how the people in the US behaved and the stereotypes associated with Americans. In essence, I lived my live in the States calling myself Icelandic.

The semester in Iceland was very important because after achieving a basic fluency I realized I could accept belonging to both countries. It also brought to light how unrealistic my godly view of the country had been. There were things I found detestable in the US but there were also things that could be changed about Iceland. The multiple foreigners I met there who told me about their only reaffirmed how lucky I was to come from two such privileged backgrounds.

Before I left the country I never would have been able to guess what studying abroad would teach me. It gave me the freedom and time from school to figure out what I actually wanted to do in life and the belief that I could do anything I wanted. I probably partied a little more than was really necessary, but now I’m ready to buckle down for the hardest 3 semesters of my university career

If you are thinking about going abroad, stop thinking and start planning. You will never know what the world has in store for you until you do it. I still have more of my heritage to discover and although I may not be able to allocate an entire semester to China, it’s a smaller part of me but no less important.

Safe traveling,

Soley Thorsteinsdottir