Sometimes I reminisce on days when summer was the pinnacle of relaxation and a time to embrace an unabashedly sloth-like lifestyle. That was the norm when I was a child. Then I got to high school and realized that colleges would not be impressed to know I spent my summer lounging around all day in my pajamas, eating ice cream and watching The Maury Show or whatever movie was playing on HBO. Then I got to college, and the pressure to spend my summer being a productive member of society while also developing myself professionally increased ten-fold. For many of us, summer is anything but a time to relax. Indeed, each time around, the busyness of the school year bleeds into summer and we face this intense pressure to accomplish something undeniably impressive—to volunteer (traditionally abroad with lots of small children to snap pictures with), do important research, land that coveted internship or, at the very least, take some summer classes.
Since I have no shame in succumbing to societal (or at least Duke) norms, I chose the last option. I decided to enroll in summer school and add some Hispanic flare by taking my classes in Alicante, Spain, where we essentially cover in six weeks what is normally covered over the course of an entire school year. Me gusta Español.
Because I'm taking classes I actually have to care about, this doesn't feel all that different from when I'm studying at Duke. I still agonize over the state of my GPA. I still worry I will not meet the expectations I set for myself. I still stuffer from the same unnecessary and crippling pre-test anxiety. In essence, many of the standard school-year stresses remain. And, yet, the fact that I've been thrust into a foreign country where I don't know the language and don't understand the culture has made the experience distinctly different.
At Duke, I am always busy doing "something," whatever that something may be. I am studying for a test. I am attending to my duties at The Chronicle. I am working on an outside project. My notion of "busy" is defined by my actively engaging in tasks with specific end goals in mind. And, in Alicante, I would say that I am probably just as busy in the sense that I regularly feel like my unstructured free time has escaped me. We are always doing something here, but, in Spain, busy is defined not only by school work and not at all by extracurriculars, but instead by program-required weekend trips, after-class cultural excursions and other sorts of endeavors. When I'm not doing homework, I am visiting historical sites, wandering through never-ending cities and museums and listening to my host parents talk so fast in Spanish that, sometimes, I simply feign understanding because I'm too ashamed to admit I actually don't know what they're saying. "Busy" in this program is not so much an active state, but a passive one. We're not here to change other people's lives, to teach someone else something, to accomplish some sort of feat so we can go back home and say, "Look! Look at what I did!" Rather, as Americans in a foreign country, we are here to learn and absorb with the knowledge that the experience in and of itself, and not some sort of tangible outcome, is what ultimately holds value.
I can't impress someone with the first time I was able to hold a full conversation in Spanish, a dialogue void of awkward pauses and incorrectly conjugated verbs and filled with once foreign words that now erupted with meaning. No one will be amazed to hear about my newfound appreciation for 16th century Spanish art, about how I could have wandered that museum for hours and gotten blissfully lost in those paintings and the narratives they conveyed. And I doubt there will be much interest in the way I felt when I climbed to the top of a castle and witnessed the beauty of the world below me, in the way the sunlight reflected off the water and the buildings blurred along the horizon.
To listen, to appreciate, to feel—we don't always qualify these acts as important nor do they really get much outside recognition. But I have spent a significant amount of time doing all of these things, and, while it's difficult to fully convey why they matter, the magnitude of their importance should not be dismissed.
Yes, summer is a time to be busy. It is a time to explore, to engage, to take action. But it is also a time to reflect, to listen, to marvel at the beauty that surrounds us every single day.
So sit back, relax and look at the world around you.
Michelle Menchaca is the Editorial Pages Managing Editor and a Trinity junior. This is her second column in a biweekly series during the summer.