From studying politics to living it: my study abroad experience

“What I have learned goes beyond the facts of this one political conflict... I have seen how boundaries can be pushed.”

Students protesting in Barcelona, courtesy of The Telegraph.

By: Michelle Gomez

My undergrad at SFU was pretty average, until I studied abroad in a country that was culturally and politically unravelling. Over the last four months, that’s exactly what’s been happening in the region of Catalonia, which has wrestled with the issue of independence from Spain. This unrest has made my semester abroad in Spain interesting, at times challenging, to say the least. When I first arrived in Barcelona at the end of August 2017, I saw Catalan flags and political posters plastered everywhere around the city. While I was aware of the referendum and of a general divide in Catalonia, I did not realize how prominent this issue was going to be throughout my time abroad. For the purpose of clarity, I will attempt to simplify a conflict that is anything but simple.

Catalonia is a region in Spain that has its own language, customs, anthem, culture, and regional government. It was a completely separate state until 1469, when Ferdinand II, king of Aragon (present-day Catalonia), married Queen Isabella of Castile (present-day Spain) in 1469, uniting the regions into what is known as present-day Spain. During the next few tumultuous centuries, Catalonia held onto its unique nationalism despite efforts to repress it, leading us to where we are today.

The referendum in which Catalans voted to either leave or remain in Spain was on October 1, 2017, and was declared illegal by the central Spanish government. Chaos ensued on referendum day when the Spanish national troops resorted to throwing voters out of polling stations and using batons and rubber bullets against the crowds. Ultimately, the result of the referendum was roughly 90% in favour of independence. However, as only 42.3% of the population voted, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding which side holds the majority.

The weeks following the referendum were confusing and tense: Catalan politicians were arrested, and the previously silent pro-Spain countermovement took to the streets for the first time. The Catalan government semi-declared independence, prompting the central Spanish government to demand clarification and deliver an ultimatum: Catalonia would retract any declaration of independence, or Spain would suspend its regional autonomy.

This unclear back-and-forth ended with the Spanish government suspending the regional autonomy of Catalonia and arresting 12 Catalan government officials. On October 30, Carles Puigdemont, Catalan’s president, escaped to Brussels, Belgium along with five former ministers to escape charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds, among others. The regional Catalan elections were set to find a new government on December 21. A coalition of three pro-independence parties outpolled the anti-independence parties, but every individual party failed to win a majority of the popular vote (50% or more). However, they will now try to form a coalition government. Tensions are higher than ever and protests continue in full force.

Everybody from Spain seemed to have a very strong opinion on the question of independence. As an outsider, I did not have enough knowledge on the issue to form an informed opinion and tried to understand both sides, which led to a completely different experience. One girl that I met in my first week in Barcelona was annoyed by the idea of Catalonian independence. She told me that the independence movement was mainly a cultural issue disguising itself with economic jargon, and that Catalonia would not survive without Spain. Many others argued that the separation of Catalonia was nationalistic and would put both the country and the province at an economic disadvantage. However, many Catalans I spoke to felt that their culture was not respected by the central government. They openly declared that Spain would not be able to sustain itself without Catalonia, as the province was unfairly economically supporting Spain.

Despite acting as an impartial observer of this movement, it shook up my life in Barcelona. Accidentally walking into massive demonstrations, having classes cancelled because of protests, and experiencing transit and business strikes were just a few things my fellow exchange students and I experienced on a daily basis. On one occasion, I remember getting caught in a protest on my way home from grocery shopping. It took over an hour to make my way through the crowd of chanting and singing Catalans that extended for at least ten blocks. Another time, my classmates and I showed up to our Spanish class to find the front doors of our school barricaded shut with wooden chairs and plastered with giant banners. A group of students was protesting the arrests of Catalan politicians that had occured the day before, and would not allow anyone inside the building to attend class. Our teacher took one look at the scene and announced that class was cancelled — an incredible relief considering it was 9:00 a.m.

Staying at home, I probably would have learned about this conflict in my international studies and political science courses. I would have read about it, discussed it in class, and maybe even written about it. Although I would have learned the facts, I would have always felt disconnected from this conflict. After being there and experiencing it, I now have a rich knowledge of the political structure of Spain, the history of the region, and the different perspectives of the people living here.

What I have learned goes beyond the facts of this one political conflict. I have experienced a social movement. I have seen how boundaries can be pushed. I can feel the passion from both sides of the conflict when Catalans protest and dance and sing in the streets. I can see their devotion when they miss school and work and use their free time to fight for what they believe in. I witness their unity when they take to the streets with their children and their parents and their friends. While there is tension in the air, there is also the coming together of people with shared beliefs, and mutual respect between the groups. Being from a country where political turmoil is rare, I have never experienced anything like this before, and it has taught me much more than I could have imagined I would gain from my exchange.

To anyone reading this: I would highly recommend studying abroad somewhere that interest you. Get out of SFU for a semester and explore the world. Not only did exchange enhance my university academic experience by allowing me to explore subjects that are not offered at SFU, but moving across the world for a semester improved my ability to adapt to new environments. I encountered a number of obstacles before and during my time abroad that have caused me to develop invaluable life skills: I am a better problem solver, can remain calm in moments of crisis, and can maneuver my way through unfamiliar situations. Once I got past the initial frustration of living in a society that operates differently than what I am used to, I was able to experience new things, learn valuable lessons, and develop a different perspective on the world. For the things I have learned, the experiences I have had, and the friends I have made, I will be forever grateful.

Editor’s note: Want to read more about opportunities abroad for SFU students? Check out our previous pieces: Down and out during Study Abroad, Living abroad, studying abroad, thinking broadly, and Develop your horizons