Adapting to a new life while studying in Mexico for a year
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
“The more you travel and discover the world, the richer your own knowledge becomes.”
About 9 years ago I packed up my bags to travel on the longest journey away from home I’d ever been. I was going to study a year abroad in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I didn’t speak any Spanish and I had never been away from my home, family, or friends for more than a month. I was about to turn 18 in 5 days, and I knew I would not be able to spend this special day with my friends nor family. But that was my decision. I had been dreaming about studying abroad with AFS Intercultural Programs for a long time. I was longing for a new experience, one that allowed me to learn Spanish, meet new people, and gain new perspectives.
My time abroad was one of the most rewarding periods of my life. There were undoubtedly hard times in the beginning, yet I made some of the best memories. Studying abroad changed me at that time, but also has continued to shape my life. It gave me a fresh perspective on the world and taught me more about myself than I could have imagined. This is my story.
My first introduction to Mexico
When I first arrived in the country, I had a few ‘get to know Mexico’ themed days in Mexico City with fellow foreign students. After that, I boarded a bus to Cuernavaca, also called ‘the city of eternal spring’. As the name suggests, this city has a very nice climate with temperatures around 25 degrees all year around. I was going to live there in a Mexican household for a year, who I had never met before. And this all in a foreign country with vast cultural differences and a language barrier. This was one of the most exciting and, at the same time, frightening moments of my life.
My host mother picked me up from the bus station and introduced me to the family. It was a typical Mexican family, consisting of more than 80 people, but they were all very close to each other. Each of them was very welcoming, kind, and warm, making me feel like I was one of them. I was living with my host mother, grandmother, and little sister, and I was given the name “hija” which translates to daughter. Growing up with my brother and parents in Belgium, I wasn’t used to living with only women. Luckily, this didn’t become an issue, and my host family and I were the perfect match.
When I first arrived in Mexico, I could only speak about 5 words in Spanish, while my host family only knew about 5 words in English. This meant that I had to learn the Spanish language quickly. The AFS High School Program I was attending was designed to fully immerse myself into the local culture and language. It involved a redo of my last year of high school in a local school and becoming an active member of the community. By following all my classes in Spanish, I quickly mastered the language. Communicating with my host family became easier and easier!
The life lessons I learned from studying abroad
One of the foremost lessons I’ve gained was a better understanding of the world. Although the Mexicans’ appearance, culture, and traditions are different from Belgians, we have a lot of similarities as humans. These similarities made me realize how easy it is to build up a new life elsewhere in the world. It is easy to establish a network of new friends who share the same passions, hopes, and dreams.
Another life lesson I learned from studying abroad is to be more appreciative of my life at home. Living with a family that is less affluent, I was able to reflect upon my own life. My host family was happy, warm, caring, and enjoyed the simple things in life. This opened my eyes and helped me start focusing on the important things in life myself. I realized that my family and friends at home are irreplaceable. I felt blessed with what I have and where I live.
Finally, studying abroad taught me to be more open-minded. I was exposed to the unique Mexican culture, values, and traditions, which were very different than I was used to. As I was celebrating their traditions and immersing myself in their culture, I was learning and experiencing new things. This enriched my overall experience abroad.
My toughest moments when studying abroad
My first month abroad was the toughest. I was turning 18 without having my family and friends around. A celebration at home would usually involve a grand party. However, this wasn’t the case in Mexico. As I still couldn’t speak properly Spanish and didn’t know many people, I felt quite lonely and sad to be so far away from my friends and family. I made a deal with myself that if I was still unhappy by Christmas, I would go back home to Belgium.
As time passed, I started to learn to put things into perspective and adapt to my new life. I couldn’t even remember why I made this deal in the first place. When my parents and brother visited me in February, I was already bound to my Mexican life. I realized how great this exchange experience had been and that was hard to combine with my old life. I was happy to see my parents and brother, but every day I knew that this was another day less with my Mexican family and friends.
My greatest moments when studying abroad
During my year in Mexico, I had numerous opportunities to travel around. These made for some of my best memories. I visited many cities nearby Cuernavaca and traveled around most of the southern part of the country. As for the North, there was a strict prohibition to travel, imposed by the AFS organization. The reason for this prohibition was security.
My top 5 places in Mexico were:
Oaxaca: for the atmosphere
Mérida: located nearby the ocean and the wonderful cenotes
Chiapas: San Cristóbal de las Casas for its coziness
Taxco: lovely views as the area is defined by mountains and hills
‘Las Taquerias’: because you can’t live in Mexico without passing by a taqueria every day at least once
What made these travel memories even more unforgettable were the new friends I shared them with. I made lifelong friends through the AFS Organization, the local school, and my family.
Advice for others
Even though adapting to a new life may seem impossible in the beginning, it is so worth it. All the new people you get to meet, the new food you can try, and learning about a completely new culture enriches your life in a way you never thought possible.
I was surprised how quickly I learned to adjust to my new life in Mexico and I am truly grateful to have lived in a wonderful host family for a year. Even today, 8 years after my exchange, we are still in contact. They even attended my wedding in Belgium recently!
People all around the world have had life-changing travel experiences. Whether it's studying abroad, traveling for leisure, working abroad, or living abroad! Check out more of our traveler stories from around the world.
Are you thinking about studying abroad or have stories of your own from the road? Feel free to add questions or comments below!