Managing the Unexpected in Spain: Homesickness, COVID, and Friends

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by Brandon Schettler | Emory Salamanca Program, Spring 2020

The sun was streaming through the plane’s windows, and even though I’d gotten six hours of sleep in the last two days, I was awake enough to realize that I had just become part of history, whether I liked it or not.

During my study abroad experience in Salamanca, Spain, I witnessed one of the biggest challenges that will (hopefully) ever happen. When I arrived in that magnificent city in early January of 2020, COVID-19 was just a news headline in a very distant part of the world. It didn’t seem any more concerning to my life in Spain than any other headline. But by March, things had changed. And they had changed faster than we could have imagined.

This was during a day-trip to Ciudad Rodrigo I went on with great friends in the program. When you’re hanging out with people you care about, the homesickness disappears.

Around March 10th, our program director met with Emory officials to discuss the future of the semester. She had good news: we weren’t being sent home, and we would still get to go on some of our planned excursions, including one to Andalucía.

That changed too. The night before the final exam for my grammar class (great timing, right?), President Trump announced his travel ban for people outside of the US. As soon as I read that, I knew everything was about to change. Sure enough, the very next day, all of the Emory students in the program had an emergency meeting. We were told to book the first flight available—our time in Salamanca was coming to an end.

Everything else is history, but personally, that moment made me feel guilty. COVID-19 was a highly unique circumstance, but even before any of those events happened, I was struggling with something most students abroad experience: homesickness.

It’s not easy being in a foreign country, which for me was my first time outside of the US. Add to that speaking with most people in Spanish, a language I only started learning in high school, and it’s easy to miss the comforts of home. In Salamanca, the classes were also much easier than at Emory, so with all that downtime, I sometimes found myself lonely and wondering when I would return.

As I sat in the Boeing 777, hours away from landing in New York, I felt guilty that I had been homesick. I was about to be stuck at home with quarantine and COVID restrictions, far from the beautiful country I had just departed. I asked myself how I could have taken Spain for granted. 

But I came to realize that missing home is just a side effect of being abroad. It’s natural and normal. The friends you make probably feel that same way, even if they hide it well. And besides, the good times I had with friends in Salamanca and on our excursions completely outwÍeighed any homesickness I had.

So, whether it’s being sent home for COVID-19 or just returning home as planned, don’t be afraid to talk with fellow study abroad students about your feelings during and after the program. They understand better than anyone what you’re experiencing.

It might sound like a Beatles song, but getting a little help from your friends can go a long way to overcome any of these study abroad challenges.