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Study abroad is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to travel the world with your friends, meet new people from new places, and gain a new perspective of the world. It also is a great opportunity to be involved in service. During my adventurous semester in Barcelona, I knew it would be a good idea to have a stable, weekly commitment to something since there was really nothing else about those four months that was reliable or constant. I also wanted to give back in some way to the country who was hosting me and giving me this wonderful and cultural experience. What I didn’t know going into my service experience was that I would gain a completely new outlook on what service is all about. While volunteering at Sant Joan de Déu Children’s Hospital in Barcelona, I learned three unexpected things about service.
When traveling to foreign countries, among all of the sightseeing and typical tourist activities, it is easy to forget that you are immersing yourself in a new culture, a new language, and with completely new people. While I am comfortable with the Spanish language and was fine to communicate with the natives, the children’s hospital was a different story. The hospital was a Catalan hospital, which means they speak mostly in Catalan, an entirely separate language.
Thus, I found it difficult to communicate with the other volunteers and even the children in the hospital. Having the barrier of communication to hurdle through each day of service was not what I was typically used to in my past service experiences. But, this unconventional aspect allowed me to experience a new way of communicating and broke me out of my typical service experience.
My service experiences prior to the children’s hospital typically involved working with the elderly, spending time with children through Big Brother Big Sister, and other situations that were both comfortable and familiar. I usually shy away from service opportunities in hospitals as they make me uneasy and are actually one of my biggest fears. Anything with the medical field falls right into my own personal “do not enter zone.” But, in Spain, I thought since I was already outside of my comfort zone from being so far away from home, why not push myself even further and do service somewhere atypical.
As the weeks passed, being in a hospital setting did start to get a little easier. That’s not to say that there weren’t challenging times where I questioned my ability to last. There were a few near-fainting experiences and infection scares, but as challenging as moments like that were, it was living through my fear of hospitals that pushed me and my service experience to a completely new place. Being stripped of the comfort and ease of my typical service made me grow not only as a volunteer but also as person who can withstand challenges that come my way.
The best thing about service is coming out of it with something unexpected. During my time in the hospital, I became very close with a few of the other volunteers who were all native to Barcelona. They taught me about the city, the politics, and other new things such as chess and magic. If it wasn’t for my time in the hospital, I would have never had relationships with any of the locals and I wouldn’t have had an authentic Spanish perspective on my study abroad.
What also surprised me about my experience was how truly helpful it was for the children, the families, and the other volunteers. It is easy to get into the mindset that one small act of service in the grand scheme of things doesn’t make a difference, but I challenge anyone with those thoughts to rid them during your next service experience. You will find, like I did, that any act no matter how small has an effect on someone and can make a difference. And what might surprise you the most is how much service has an impact on you.
Article by Tamy Dawli. Tamy is a senior majoring in political science and minoring in Spanish. In addition to serving as a Community Engagement Ambassador, Tamy is also the president of the HenLaw Society and an Appellate Board Member of the Office of Student Conduct.