Going Back to Look Forward: Sustaining a Transformative Experience

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The summer after my junior year of high school, I needed to do something productive. I wanted to travel the world; my parents wanted me to get a job. As a compromise, we decided that my job would be to learn Spanish in Argentina.

For two months that summer, I lived at home, went to school, washed the dishes and played volleyball with my friends—the same routine I’d been following for years. Only this time, I was doing it all in Concordia, a small city north of Buenos Aires where almost no one speaks English. I lived with a host family, sat in on classes at the Catholic school, ate lots of empanadas and practiced with a local volleyball club.

I came into that summer expecting to learn some basic conversation skills and eat a lot of steak. I left Concordia with a new family, new friends and an overwhelming desire to learn everything possible about Spanish and Hispanic cultures. The annoying cliché that “study abroad changed my life” was absolutely true for me—my exchange set me on a life path that otherwise I would never have imagined. 

Recently, I’ve wanted to return to this space where I experienced such a profound change in my own identity. What was it about this place that affected me so much? Why did my short time there have such a huge impact on my academic, professional and personal interests? And would a return visit be just as life-changing?

With the Chidsey Center’s support, in January 2018 I returned to Concordia to explore these questions. When I arrived, it felt like no time had passed at all—the same stores lined the one-way streets, and the familiar sounds of the thick Argentina accent quickly enveloped my ears with “qué lindo verte!” and “ché, ya viene Allie!” A feeling of homecoming quickly overwhelmed me. The comfort of my host mother’s hug and the joy in my friends’ smiles took me straight back to that summer, when these people in this place expanded my understanding of family and home. I was excited to share with them how much they meant to me: My summer experience ultimately inspired me to major in Hispanic Studies at Davidson, where I’ve vastly improved my language skills and cultural knowledge. Before, my limited Spanish made it difficult to have meaningful conversations; now, I could easily converse with my Concordian friends, deepening our friendships by helping us get to know each other that much better.

group photo with Allison

Going back to a space of transformation, though, is not the same as experiencing that space and transformation for the first time. Unlike that first summer, Concordia was no longer new to me—and no longer able to be that same space of transformation. When I was seventeen, Concordia became a space to form my own identity separate from my family, hometown and school setting. By immersing myself in a completely new physical, linguistic and cultural environment, I had essentially turned myself into a blank slate: I knew no one, had no real language skills and had little cultural knowledge of the space I was stepping into. When I returned in January, I had existing relationships, could speak fluent Spanish and knew my way around the town and the culture.

The experience I had in 2013 was and continues to be fundamental to my sense of self and aspirations for my future. However, returning to this same space did not and could never spark a similar transformation for me because I was no longer a stranger to this environment.

Instead, my return became an opportunity to sustain the transformation—a time I could revisit the place that had charted new paths for me to follow, and refuel the passions and drive that summer had fostered.

I’ve come to realize that my experiences are not just dependent on the place and people I’m with, but also the circumstances I bring to these spaces. The relationships I’ve formed with others and the identity I’ve developed for myself are firmly rooted in my summer-long crash course in independence, openness and trust. Going back to Concordia reenergized my determination to seek out and immerse myself in opportunities for personal growth: Returning to this transformative space helped me to reconnect with the curiosity and passion of my seventeen-year-old self, and reflect on the life-changing decisions I’ve made as a result of my high school exchange.

More than anything, this experience of return has reaffirmed my interest and dedication to the life path I first set out on from this tiny Argentinian city. As I prepare to graduate in May and go out into the world, I’m still guided by the interests, relationships and self-identity I formed that summer. Whether it be through international policy work or travel writing, I’m confident that my Concordia experiences—both the original and the return trip—will guide me to wherever it is I need to be (and to wherever I can find the best empanadas).

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