Starting today, we’ll be doing a weekly My 1+4 Story feature. These stories will focus on the experiences of our fellows in choosing the 1+4 program, and/or the impact of the 1+4 experience. Our first My 1+4 Story comes from current Spain fellow Jiyoon.
by Jiyoon Chon
“Normality is a paved road; it’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow.” –Vincent Van Gogh
For most of my life, I’ve been walking on the paved road. Sure, I excelled enough to get to where I am now, but still never really got off the beaten track. Introverted, quiet, polite, good grades, decent musician, frequent volunteer. Terrified of being put on the spot, slightly insecure and unconfident, usually conformed to the norms and status quo. I worked hard even though I didn’t really know where I was going, and fostered big dreams without knowing how exactly I was going to achieve them. Of course, along the way, I saw the dandelions peeking through the cracks in the concrete and smelled the wildflowers in the distance. I was comfortable, I was happy. But at the same time, I always felt like I was waiting. Waiting for some kind of big change, waiting for an opportunity to do something more, something crazy, something different.
When I received my acceptance letter from Tufts, I thought that was it. Moving to the other side of the country for college and beginning a new chapter of my life. Pretty crazy, right? However, it’s fairly common, and I was still going to college, just like everyone else.
Then I remembered the Tufts 1+4 program. During the college application process it got buried in my memory among the piles of paperwork, essays, and exams, but after committing to Tufts, I thought, “why not?” An entire year abroad in a different country, traveling, brushing up on my Spanish, and probably having the time of my life? Sign me up! In the back of my mind I knew it was a scary change, but I somehow had the guts to do it. I fit my life in two suitcases and left for the other side of the world, more than 5,000 miles from friends, family, and home.
When I set foot in Spain, I immediately knew I successfully threw myself off the paved road. I naively thought I would have a smooth transition and immediately start seeing the flowers.
Oh, how young and foolish I was.
I’ve never stumbled so hard in my life. I wobbled and fell all over the place on an off-beaten, rocky trail. It turns out, four years of high school Spanish is helpful, but nowhere near sufficient in understanding a native speaker. I could barely understand anyone and was incapable of saying most things that I wanted to. Combined with my introverted personality, I was a mute. Growing up bilingual, I was used to understanding and being able to speak more than the average person. The sudden language barrier definitely took a big toll on me in the beginning. I missed the food I grew up with and the comfort of being in my own house where I didn’t feel like a guest. I missed the smells, the sounds, and the rhythm of everyday life.
But, as they say, no pain, no gain.
Now, halfway through my gap year, I can’t imagine not having taken this opportunity. I’m forever changed as a person in so many ways. During my 18 years of existence, choosing this gap year has by far been the best decision I’ve ever made.
I still have a long ways to go with my Spanish, but I can now understand the majority of what I hear and my ability to communicate has improved more than it ever would have if I had not come to Madrid. I’ve had the opportunity to work with the sweetest, most precious little kids who have inspired and reminded me of the important things in life. From being a student having to ask permission to use the bathroom, I now find myself in the position granting permission. It’s a weird feeling being in a position of authority, but it’s also made me realize how much I’ve grown up over the years. I’ve made friends from all over the world, including my fellow 1+4 cohort, many of whom I probably would never have become friends with if I hadn’t done this program. Meeting and talking to people from all corners of Europe and the U.S in a single day has become a common occurrence. I’ve traveled throughout Spain, discovered the gem that is Portugal, and even had the opportunity to travel to Africa. I’ve witnessed so many different cultures and realized that different never equals wrong. Through traveling, I’ve gained a sense of independence that’s so unique to this experience and so incredibly empowering. Over winter break, I got to show my family around my new home. I can navigate my way through Madrid and the rest of Spain with ease, and with each passing week, I’m falling more and more in love with Madrid. It’s definitely going to be a place I continuously come back to for the rest of my life. I get to see what I’ve only heard about in history textbooks right before my eyes, along with the most breathtaking views, architecture, and scenery. To be let loose with no borders, no boundaries, and no limitations is unimaginably uplifting after years of having to work within a system, following the rules and doing what’s expected.
This was all a gradual change, and I don’t know when exactly the flowers started to grow. Or maybe they had always been there since the beginning and it just took time for me to see them. But now, I’m running madly through a field of wildflowers—walking this unfamiliar path isn’t always easy, but it’s crazy, it’s exciting, and it’s wild.