Marian Tower Scholarship recipient, Hunter Kolon, reflects on how she applied this generous award to study law, policy and regional autonomy at the School for International Training in Bilbao, Spain.
Describe your life in the country you were in.
While Spain as a whole has its own culture and history, the country is divided into 17 autonomous communities each with their own unique geography, climate, politics, history, culture, and some even with their own language. Bilbao is in the Basque Region, an autonomous community in northern Spain that prides itself on their distinct language (Euskera – we would often hear that it is ‘one of the most ancient languages in Europe’), widely celebrated traditions and folklore, and internationally renowned cuisine. While many of the Basque people that I interacted with identified with their Spanish identity as well as their Basque identity, the issues surrounding identity and autonomy have been contentious for decades. Last year marked the end of a 40-year-long conflict led by a Basque nationalist terrorist organization with aims to liberate the region from Spain. With the recent end to the Basque conflict, the rise of the Spanish far-right, and the delicate situation in Catalonia, it was a very interesting time to be studying political science in Spain. While the Basque language is nothing like the Spanish I had been learning, and rich culture is often unexplained and deeply ingrained into communities, the friendliness and welcoming nature of the Basque people made immersion a smooth and rewarding process.
Why did you select this country/program for your study abroad experience?
Although the region has its own language, mostly everybody uses Spanish in their daily lives and communication (especially in a bigger city like Bilbao). I knew that choosing the School for International Training and a program with language and home-stay components would push me outside of my comfort zone, challenge me, and allow me to fully immerse in the community. Secondly, this program focused on law, policy, and regional autonomy in Europe, something I first took interest in when studying abroad in Prague last summer with Dr. Corley and Dr. Kunovich. I wanted to build on that program and apply my studies in political science, international affairs, and Spanish. Lastly, it allowed for an independent research project where each student researched a program-related topic that was of interest to them. As I continue to grow academically, it is extremely valuable to improve my analytical skills through these kinds of large-scale, experiential projects.
What was a typical day like for you?
Every day looked different. For the first part of the semester, we took intensive Spanish classes with one of the university’s professors followed by lectures from experts in topics that ranged from the Basque language in schools, to the role of regional autonomous communities at the EU level, to traditional Basque sports and leisure activities. Since our program took a comparative look at independence movements in the Basque region, Scotland, and Catalonia, the second part of the semester was spent traveling with the program to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Girona, and Barcelona. On the trip we met with civil society groups, activists, and politicians to learn more in-country context and hear first-hand about the situations on the ground in the Scottish and Catalan independence movements. The last month of the semester was spent working on our independent research projects. We spent most of the month conducting interviews for our research and taking advantage of the university and community libraries and resources. When we were not researching, we would go to the beach, walk along the water, spend time at the local pintxo bars (the Basque version of tapas bars!), go into the city to visit the Guggenheim museum, explore the restaurant scene, and travel to nearby countries and cities.
What is one lesson you took away from your time there?
One of the things I took away from this semester was that everyday life looks really similar everywhere for everyone. When we travel internationally, we are always looking for ways to interact with new cultures, to try new foods, to explore new places, to go on new adventures, and to meet new people. There is no better way to accomplish all of those goals than by living with a local family and truly trying to become a part of the local community. I tried to integrate myself by frequenting neighborhood bars, cafes and restaurants, supporting local businesses, joining the yoga community, walking on the popular path by the water, practicing my Spanish, learning new Basque words and traditions, and talking with anyone who would listen. While there were a lot of small things about the Basque culture and lifestyle that were different (like eating dinner at 11 PM), my time abroad really showed me the beautiful, common humanity that we all share. It might seem simple, because it is. Humans everywhere are not all that different, no matter how unique a culture may feel. One of my favorite quotes is by Terence, the Roman playwright, and I think it sums my experience up quite well: “I am human, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” It is so easy to get caught up in experiencing everything that is different and new, but it is so refreshing and thought-provoking to take in all that is the same.
How has this experience influenced your goals for the future?
I really felt that all of the academic experiences I have had through my time at SMU came together this semester. My independent research project was on the lack of transitional justice in post-Franco Spain and its impact on victimhood. Starting with my trip to Poland with the Human Rights Program, I have been interested in and passionate about the topic of transitional justice. Getting to spend a month reading, learning, talking, and writing about it made me realize how important of a topic transitional justice is to me and the global impact it has had. Overall, my experience in Bilbao affirmed that I am on the right path to continue pursuing what I love. While I am not exactly sure where that path is going to take me, as long as I remain excited about and motivated by what I am learning, I know I am headed in the right direction. Lastly, I think that this experience really improved my Spanish and grew my confidence in using it outside the classroom and in my everyday life.
How has this experience enhanced your study of PPIA, or vice versa, how has PPIA enhanced your experience abroad?
Since we had so many different professors and lecturers teaching every week, many of them did not spend time discussing the foundations of policy making or of international relations, or even how complicated institutions like the EU work. Thanks to my background, I was able to keep up with the highly detailed and specific regional contexts of the lectures and discussions without any problems. My PPIA background allowed me to learn and absorb quickly without having to go back to the basics! I know that I took a lot more from this program and from my research because I had the knowledge and understanding that I needed to really dive into the more complex comparative approach of the program.
What is it like transitioning back into life in the U.S.?
My first week back in the states felt a little bit like whiplash. I kept almost accidentally saying (sometimes actually saying) phrases like ‘Thank you’ and ‘Excuse me’ in Spanish. It was a really weird feeling to not have to think out what I wanted to say when my family asked what I did that day, or when not having to make sure I knew what every ingredient meant when I ordered at a restaurant. While I am so glad that I chose a program with a home-
stay experience, there is nothing quite like the comfort of your own home, room, bed, and especially, your own family. There are some comforts that cannot be easily replaced, and while I love to push and challenge myself, it is always a relief to go back to the small things that you have known your whole life (Tex-Mex food for one!). I definitely miss the friends and family I made in Bilbao, and at first, it was so hard not seeing them every day like I had for the last four months! It took about a week and a half before I was finally feeling more settled, only to be uprooted and move to D.C. for the summer! I am so thankful to so many people for the amazing experience I had abroad, and now it is on to the next adventure.
If you would like an opportunity study abroad, go here to learn more about scholarships and fellowships available to SMU students.