Meet Grayson Murray, student at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham, Alabama. Grayson chose to enroll in the University Spanish Courses in Antigua, Guatemala and spent 2 weeks taking small group courses. Her coursework allowed her to receive University credit while traveling throughout Guatemala. We got the chance to sit down with her to get some more insight on her experience. Read on to find out why she chose to study Spanish in Guatemala, what her experience with her host family was like, and what kinds of adventures she got into during her short stint studying abroad.
What is the motivation for wanting to learn Spanish?
My future goals are my motivation for wanting to learn Spanish, aside from my own personal interests. Learning another language is a challenge I very much enjoy. Once I started studying Spanish, I fell in love with the culture and have been eager to learn more.
Why did you choose to study in Guatemala?
One of my academic advisors, Stayce Thompson, told me about the Spanish University program and I immediately wanted to make it a reality. The history and culture were intriguing, and I knew the experience would help me speak Spanish better. Once I decided to go, she mentioned a scholarship I could apply for that would help cover the costs. I applied and received the scholarship, which made it all possible.
How long have you been studying Spanish?
I have been studying Spanish off and on for about ten years. In high school, I studied French for two years and then Spanish for my junior and senior year.
What level did you start and end with?
I started as a beginner. I knew the language barrier would be a challenge for me, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I ended the program with a 97% in the High Basic Spanish program, which allowed me to get credit for Spanish 101 at my college.
How many credits did you receive through your University?
I (happily) received 4 credits for the Spanish Immersion program with Maximo Nivel, which equates to Spanish 101 in totality.
Was there anything that surprised you about the way Spanish is taught at Maximo Nivel?
Before I got to Antigua, I knew the classes would be taught in Spanish and I did a lot of research prior to my trip. I had a good idea of what to expect, but Maximo Nivel certainly exceeded my expectations! The small class setting helped me to absorb the course material more so than if I had been in a larger class setting.
How does the campus itself encourage you to continue speaking Spanish outside of the classroom?
With the beautiful courtyard, it is easy to meet people that speak Spanish that will converse with you. The Tandem Conversations with my partner helped me gain more confidence in my speaking and made me more comfortable while talking to Guatemalan natives. The cultural excursions and classes further pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to use the language in different settings and with different groups. Being immersed in the culture helped me become more comfortable with my knowledge of Spanish.
Where and with whom do you use Spanish most?
I previously worked in an environment where I used a lot of Spanish. Now that I am back in school, I plan to study the language, so I can better use the language in my future career and everyday life.
Why do you think it’s important for English speakers to learn Spanish?
There are many reasons as to why it’s important for English speakers to learn Spanish. With the current state of immigration affairs in my country, the United States, it is a critical time for people to broaden their horizons and learn to empathize with humans from other cultures. Learning Spanish, most especially through an Immersion Program, allows one to more deeply connect with Spanish speakers and the realities they face. If people could gain more clarity on the transparency of our similarities, it would create room for more understanding and acceptance of our differences.
Tell us about your experience with your host family.
My host family was one of the best parts of the whole experience. I lived with the Acevado family in the Northwestern corner of Antigua. The house had connected buildings, one for the main house and one for the family’s hotel. There was a beautiful terrace where I could study and have a 360-degree view of the mountains and volcanoes. In my room, there were two girls from Canada, and I became very close friends with them during my time in Antigua. In the house, there would be 10-12 people at breakfast and dinner. Each meal became a great opportunity to speak Spanish, as my host mother did not speak English. I was able to meet people my age from other countries and made friends that I could study with during my Immersion program. I miss them all dearly and already want to plan another trip next Spring!
Have you ever traveled with a group before?
I had never traveled with a group before my trip to Antigua. Actually, I had never traveled out of the country. This experience was eye-opening and thought-provoking.
What are some positives/negatives about traveling with a group?
I was thankful to have people to explore and try new foods with. Being with a group made navigating around a new city, in a new country, easier. The friends I made in my group helped each other study and a lot of them were studying a higher level of Spanish, which greatly helped my studies. Personally, I didn’t experience any negatives in regard to traveling with a group.
Have you attended any of the cooking classes or salsa classes?
During my time in Antigua, I participated in all the cooking and salsa classes possible! Although, I will say that the salsa dancing was my favorite. Back home, I am not the type to dance at all really. But while being immersed in the culture, I gained a newfound confidence in myself and found that I am quite good at salsa and bachata dancing! I plan to share these new skills with the Multicultural Student Association at my school this Fall.
Which local recipes have you learned? Which dish is your favorite?
I learned how to make empanadas and pupusas, which was interesting because I make similar dishes here in the States. My host mother, Anna Lilian, made wonderful soups and many different dishes. I was surprised by the yummy breakfast drinks and enjoyed having fresh bread and vegetables with each meal. My favorite dish was certainly the chicken pepián! The spices and herbs were so delicious. I had a lot of amazing food that I can’t get in my home state of Alabama.
What’s one thing that surprised you about Antigua, Guatemala?
Antigua, Guatemala blew me away with the beauty and richness of the culture. The buildings, the people, the clothing – simply everything was beautiful. The nature and connection between the land and the people inspired me to think about my lifestyle here at home. The people were very helpful, considering I am not fluent in Spanish (yet). I felt comfortable and almost at home by the time my two-week trip came to an end. I fell in love with the spiritual peacefulness of the ancient city.
Were you able to explore the city?
I explored the city every day! My group did cultural excursions almost every day and each one was exhilarating.
Did you get to visit any famous sites and destinations?
My group did a lot of tours and I was lucky to see a great part of the city. We went to places such as Mercado de Artesania, Parque Central, Iglesia San Francisco, Alameda El Calvario, and Iglesia La Merced. My favorite view of the city was at Cerro de la Cruz; we visited the site where the cross was originally used and to see it on the top of the hill was magnificent. Lake Atitlan was stunningly beautiful, almost breath-taking. Pictures do not do justice, compared to the raw appeal of the history and culture in Guatemala.
What kind of adventures did you get into?
I was continuously adventuring while in Guatemala. My group tried so much new food, saw so many new places and we made so many new friends! Each day felt like an adventure and I wasn’t ready for it to end. I rode a boat across Lake Atitlan. I explored the jungle in Panajachel, where I also fed monkeys and coatis. I saw cotton be woven. I got to see how chocolate is produced. I experienced so many new things in such a short amount of time. It was certainly the trip of a lifetime.
What was one of your most memorable moments?
I feel like I created so many memorable moments during my time in Antigua. My favorite would have to be visiting the Museo Lacustre de Atitlan and the exhibition there for the Sunken City of Samabaj. The museum required you take your shoes off and it almost seemed like you were underwater if you closed your eyes and imagined you were at the underwater excavation site.
What are your recommendations for future participants?
Get out of your comfort zone and see as much of the city as possible during your visit. Make sure to find a rooftop to soak in the lovely afternoon sun and gorgeous view. Plan an excursion to Lake Atitlan and visit the small towns on the lake. Any way you go, you won’t be disappointed in Antigua. Just make sure you have enough time to get the whole city in, my trip of two-weeks seemed too short by the time it was over!
If you were inspired by Grayson’s story and wondering how you, too, can study Spanish while exploring a beautiful Latin American country, check out our Spanish Immersion programs in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru. If you want to kick it up a notch, choose to add a TEFL certificate program, volunteer abroad, or an international internship.