Reflecting on a busy summer

Summer 2023 was the busiest period I’ve had post 2020 pandemic. I jumped into my SLA grant just a few short days after wrapping up two months of fieldwork in Nigeria for my Masters of Global Affairs i-Lab project. While the summer was hectic, I am so glad I worked diligently to make sure I had time for language learning. My month in Guatemala was a wonderful experience and I am so lucky I was able to return to Antigua to continue studying Spanish.

While mentally taxing some days, I’m glad I pushed myself to take six hours of private lessons a day and live with a host family. This commitment allowed me the structure and immersion I needed to push my Spanish skills forward. One of the biggest things I noticed was how much my confidence grew since I was in Guate in January (I will credit Intermediate Spanish II at Notre Dame for that) and how it grew over the course of the month. By the end of the trip I was confident ordering food in restaurants, negotiating with shop owners, asking for help or directions while traveling, and striking up conversations with new people. This gained confidence was a huge win for me because my own fear of failure has been the primary factor holding me back from further learning.

The SLA grant has pushed me to seek future immersive, language learning opportunities. I am in the process of applying for a Fulbright Research Grant to return to Guatemala next year as well as a Boren Graduate Fellowship. Both would allow me to conduct research on the intersection of environmental and development issues while continuing to improve my language skills. I am also excited to continue weekly Spanish tutoring with a CSLC tutor and practice conversation with my three housemates who are all fluent/native speakers. The SLA grant reminded me that opportunities to learn Spanish are out there if I am bold and committed enough to apply for and take advantage of them.

Studying Spanish in Guatemala this summer may not have changed my life per say, but it has certainly pushed me further out of my comfort zone into a level of language learning I have never achieved until this point in my life. I also was lucky to have developed some wonderful relationships with my host family and teachers who will always hold a special place in my heart. For that, I am incredibly grateful to the SLA program and CSLC for the opportunity to learn new skills, even later in life as a 25-year-old graduate student.

Blog Post #6 – The End

It has been more than a week since I have returned home to the United States. Although my previous plan was to come home right after my course finished, my family surprised me with a trip through eastern Europe. As such, I was able to experience France, Spain, and Great Britain in addition to the countries I visited over the summer. In total, I saw Germany, Austria, Czechia, Denmark, France, Spain, and the UK.

Before my trip, I expected Europe to be very well put together, not as crazy as the United States can be, and a very easy switch from life in the US. However, after about a week of living there, none of my expectations held up. Due to the war, COVID, local political disagreements, etc., Germany seemed like another country with imperfections (shocker, right?). Although they might not have been as disorganized and divided as the US, many people in Germany shared their opinions and disagreed with one another on every topic.

But looking back, I’m happy there is conflict, disagreements, and imperfections. After all, what would the world be like if it was perfect. In my eyes, boring. The exciting thing about life is our differences as people and finding commonalities despite them. My experience in Germany gave me numerous opportunities to find commonalities and share in them, but also to recognize differences and celebrate them. Not every cultural difference was a positive one (like the fact German stores are only open to 8!), but they put a spin on life.

Before signing off, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who helped me discern and complete my journey. Thank you to Mrs. Eva Hoeckner for telling me about SLA. Thank you to Professor Robert Norton for inspiring me to see places outside of Leipzig and inspiring me to develop me German further than I normally would at Notre Dame. Thank you to Professor Denise DellaRossa for assisting me in my search for housing, the right program, and everything else related to Germany. Thank you to Mrs. Mary Davis for helping me look deeper into my experience and see the lessons within my experience. And finally, thank you to all of the sponsors from the CSLC and Max Kade Foundation who assisted my journey financially and made this dream become reality. I cannot thank everyone at Notre Dame enough.

With that, I’m signing off.

Sincerely, John Hammerschmitt

Hasta Luego

It has been about a week since I finished classes in Salamanca. Right now I am in Toledo about to start my semester abroad! With this said, I feel so much more prepared for classes in Toledo than I did six weeks ago.

The last six weeks have done a lot to build up my confidence in my ability to interact with people in Spanish. My experience with Spanish in Mexico during the Center for Social Concerns Fellowship was much more stressful than Salamanca partly because I was very fearful and self-conscious of the mistakes I made while speaking. Since Mexico had been somewhat difficult to adjust to, I expected that Spain would be just as hard to acclimate to as well. Surprisingly, it was much easier for me to adjust than I had initially thought. This may be because Spain, while different, still reminds me of the U.S. in a lot of ways. Furthermore, in Mexico, I had already experienced the initial shock of being placed in an environment where I could not rely on English, so this was less nerve-racking when it happened in Spain.

Besides language acquisition, the other goal I mentioned in my first blog post was improving my ability to work through situations using a different cultural mindset. Since there were people from all over the world studying at Colegio Delibes, I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with many interesting individuals who had different perspectives from mine. While I definitely think I am more cognizant of what people outside the U.S. think about Americans and why they may think differently about certain things, I don’t think I am at the point where I can unconsciously “change” my cultural mindset. I think when I wrote this goal I inherently assumed I would be completely changed by my time in Spain. While I definitely have had a formative experience, my initial impression of new places and situations is primarily influenced by the culture I grew up in and my identity as an American. With this said, my ability to reflect on past experiences from new perspectives and understand others from different cultures has grown. 

During my time in Toledo, I hope to learn even more about the language, culture, and history of Spain. Muchísimas gracias por el apoyo del CSC! The world truly is our classroom!

Coming Full Circle

After finishing my SLA grant, I quickly flew from Cuenca to Ecuador’s capital Quito to begin an independent research project through the Kellogg Institute. This would be my greatest test of Spanish thus far, as my project proposal necessitated conversations about immigration policy – I would have to trust that I was ready to navigate the complex themes and emotions that would arise because of these conversations. Although nervous, I was ready to take the training wheels off of my immersive experience: I would be alone in Quito, without the support of Notre Dame, my Cuenca Spanish school, or my host family.

My routine for gathering responses was simple: Go to local businesses, check to make sure they are not busy, and ask the staff if they would like to participate in my project. I would explain the logistics of the project, answer any questions, and ask if they were interested. While they completed the survey, I would read my most recent purchase from my favorite bookstore in Quito and stick around to field any additional questions. As I worked towards my goal of 60 responses, I became more confident and assertive in this setting. I had never recruited participants for a study in the US, let alone in a different country in my target language, but I became increasingly comfortable as I ticked closer to the magic number of 60. As I collected more and more responses, I would occasionally have casual conversations with the respondents once they were finished – talking about American visa and immigration policies, and their personal experiences with immigrants or trying to immigrate, among other things. These conversations frequently concluded with compliments on my Spanish, followed by a compliment I still don’t think I deserved: I spoke Spanish with the accent and cadence of Ecuadorians in the Sierra. Much to my surprise, many I spoke with were not shocked that I had learned the bulk of my Spanish in Cuenca as I attempted to mirror their sing-song style of speaking.

As I allowed these interactions to marinate in my brain while walking between survey collections, I realized that my SLA experience gave me something that I didn’t know I was looking for: I got a second chance at the things I struggled with during my gap year and first experience in Ecuador. I entered my first stay in Paute with no Spanish background. A Latin student in high school, I figured that when immersed, learning a language can’t be that difficult, right?

Wrong. I never progressed passed the speaking and interpretation skills of a small child, and only felt completely comfortable speaking with my host family, as they had spent so much time with me that they knew how to communicate most effectively. While proud of my progress during my gap year, I was always frustrated that my peers seemed to progress with their Spanish much faster than me, and I struggled with having so many thoughts and feelings but being unable to express anything more complicated than “happy” or “tired”.

While collecting data for my project, I realized that I had accomplished what I set out to do in 2019. After an arduous and formative gap year experience, many semesters of Spanish classes at Notre Dame, and a 6-week stay in El Salvador working as a non-profit consultant, I had finally done it. “Fluency” is an elusive and difficult-to-define concept, but this was the closest I had ever felt to fluent. No longer anxious about striking up conversations with strangers for fear of encountering unknown vocab, my thoughts no longer outpaced my language skills and I began to truly express myself in Spanish, and I even began to develop somewhat of an Ecuadorian accent.

I felt like I could finally be me in a different language. Interestingly enough, I also learned that “me” in Spanish was different than in English. I was much more extroverted, my body language became more animated and expressive, and I began to feel at home in this once strange and foreign place.

I had begun this journey of Spanish proficiency and Ecuadorian immersion before I enrolled at Notre Dame, unsure as to whether or not I could continue once I began College. Grateful for the experience provided by the SLA grant, I was able to reconnect with my family authentically, and I know that the door is always open for me in Paute, a second home to me. I don’t know when I will be able to return next, but I know that Ecuador, Paute, and my family will forever be a part of my life.