Reverse Culture Shock

  • 285 days
  • 23 flights
  • 10 months
  • 9 countries
  • 8 languages
  • 7 engineering classes
  • 5 niños
  • 4 Cantabria students
  • 3 Cornell students
  • 2 incredibly supportive parents who made this all possible
  • 1 long year of trying to mentally prepare myself to come back

Tuesday starts classes and, along with it, the real reverse culture shock.

In Spain, university is a little different. For one, we only had two weeks off for Christmas break, we came back and had class for another week and a half, and then had exams until the end of January. After my last exam I remember walking home and having that strange but pleasant realization that I don’t have anything in particular that I have to write or calculate or hand in on a certain date at a certain time; of having a seemingly infinite amount of free time, if only for a short while. But somehow I was lacking that usual feeling of great relief that I would always experience while walking out of my last final at the end of a semester at Cornell, as if someone removed all the cinderblocks sitting on top of me and I could finally take a deep breath for the first time since school began. It wasn’t that I thought I had done poorly on my exams and I was worried (in fact quite the opposite, as the Cantabria courses were quite a bit simpler than Cornell’s), but rather that this time, I suddenly realized, I hadn’t even been holding my breath in the first place.

If I had to choose one instance to characterize my experience abroad, at least academically, it would be this.

In Spain I was not constantly tired and I would get stressed out almost exclusively during finals. And even then, only moderately. And even then, not for all of them. In Spain there was almost never any uselessly tedious or overly theoretical homework. The professors took the time to answer questions and only one (out of thirteen) got annoyed with the frequency of mine. In Spain no one was downing cups and cups of coffee to squeeze in one more problem or one more essay before the crack of dawn. No one was comparing their grades with their classmates or beating themselves up for getting a 9 instead of a 10. No one was fretting over their next internship or their GPA or their extracurriculars or their E-board position. They didn’t fill every waking moment with something scheduled, and instead of just working through lunch they actually took a break to go eat something. In Spain they made spending time with friends and family a priority. In Spain I felt balanced; I felt like a real person.

In Spain. But I’m not in Spain anymore. I’m at Cornell, where one of the smart alecky students would probably tell me “all of that is the reason for Spain’s current suffering economy” (that is false, please go take an economics class), “Spaniards are just lazy like that” (also false, please go meet some working Spaniards), or “that’s why Spain isn’t as productive as the U.S.” This last one is actually true, and when one Spaniard said this to me, my response was “so what?” Productivity isn’t everything. If we can cure all diseases and live to be a hundred and fifty but its a century and a half of being overworked and overstressed without the joys of leisure, art, or simply doing things for fun, I will gladly opt for the shorter, happier life.

Perhaps this type of high-pressure, high-stress, and highly competitive environment is just an American thing. Or maybe an Ivy League thing. Or an engineering thing. Or solely an American Ivy League engineering thing. Whatever it is, if this mentality is considered the pinnacle of education and what every school should strive to be, I am more than slightly concerned with where our priorities lie.

While I am incredibly excited to see all my friends, continue working with my Engineers Without Borders team, lead the Cornell Catholic Community, continue volunteering with Alpha Phi Omega, and take advantage of all the amazing opportunities Cornell’s campus has to offer, I have never been so ready to finish school. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s not senioritis, I love to learn and always will. It’s simply that I love to feel like a real human being even more.

Spain (in combination with Bolivia last summer) gave me the opportunity to take one giant step back and look at my life, the world, and their intersection, as a whole, with infinitely greater clarity. After getting so caught up in the minute and insignificant details for a couple of years, I was reminded who I began doing this for in the first place, and thankfully that alone is enough to get me through this final year.

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam

Advertisements