María Filgueira is a current freshman at Saint Joseph’s University. She is double majoring in Theater and Psychology, with a minor in creative writing. María is from Oviedo, Asturias in the North of Spain. I sat down with her to discuss her experiences studying abroad during the Covid-19 pandemic.

María at El Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, Spain
Source: María Filgueira

What was it like traveling internationally during Covid-19 times?

It was so weird because it was a long flight, 8 hours, and I obviously had to wear my mask the whole time. It is a little annoying to be on an 8 hour flight wearing the same mask, and in a close proximity to others on the plane, because you don’t know if they’re sick or not. Then you have to find your way to the train station. It is not like normal times, it’s harder to do everything.

What is it like traveling alone to a foreign country?

It is so hard, because first of all it’s the first time I was traveling without my parents and to a foreign country, where people spoke a different language. It was a really long trip, and there were some challenging experiences. If things don’t go exactly as you plan, you begin to panic. I was so nervous, I mean I’m only 18 years old in a big country. I didn’t know anybody. You can’t rely on your parents’ help, because they aren’t there. Everything seems to fall apart. Small disturbances in your plans become the biggest thing in the world to you in the moment. It’s hard to be alone and face adversities by yourself.

Can you describe your quarantine experience here at SJU?

Before traveling here, in mid July, the office of international students and scholars was working with me to help my travels be successful. They told me I had to quarantine when I arrived here, because I was coming from a different country. The day before I started my travels, they told me where I had to quarantine, and how it was going to work. My quarantine was in the Sourin residence hall, in a suite, and it had me and another girl in the dorm room next to me, but there were also other people on other floors. I shared the same bathroom with my suitemate. We were in separate individual dorm rooms though, and we couldn’t talk a lot to each other because we were isolated. We couldn’t be in the lounge or anything. The quarantine wasn’t because we were sick, but because we had been on a flight for many hours, in my case 8 hours, with people from all over the world. Our countries were also suffering from Covid-19, and SJU wanted to make sure we were Covid free to ensure we wouldn’t infect people around campus. The tests themselves weren’t reliable enough, so I had to quarantine for 14 days in Sourin. It was organized well because they gave me a menu for each of my meals, which included three meals a day from “Good Uncle”. You could also go out to pick up packages that included any essential items you needed for your stay, such as bedding, toiletries and towels. They gave me a minifridge and microwave in the dorm room too. The first week of my quarantine here was a week before classes started and the second week was the first week of classes. I was on zoom so I had more to do during the day. Although the quarantine experience wasn’t necessarily enjoyable, as I’m sure it isn’t for anyone, I was grateful I could travel here at all, because of the many Covid-19 restrictions around the world.

María on her first day out of quarantine exploring campus
Source: María Filgueira

What is the hardest part about studying abroad?

I think the fact that I am so far from home is the hardest part, and it is a big change for everyone studying abroad. Also, going from high school to college is a big change for everyone. I was in the same school for six years, and with the same friends for so long. I felt overprotected by everyone around me, including my family, friends, and teachers. But then when I came here alone, I didn’t know anyone, and so you kind of miss your former life. It is a totally different life now, and although I’m settled in and I like my life here now, the first few weeks were difficult because it felt like I was missing my teenage years in Spain. I realized the reality of the situation was that I was going to study here, and even though I’ve always been very close to my family all my life I was suddenly extremely far from them. Changes are hard for everyone, but for me especially, I get greatly affected by big changes in my life. 

Why did you choose to study in the United States and not Spain?

I want to be an actress, and I want to be in the movies. I am not as interested in  theater, but in movies. I’ve always known that I didn’t like Spanish movies as much as American movies. I am a huge classic film fan, and I imagined that I would always be in one someday. I used to idealize American movies, including the classics from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, so basically the “Golden Years” of cinema. I remember being in my television room at home about two years ago, sitting on the couch thinking that being an actress is really what I want to do. However I thought the life I wanted was impossible, and it didn’t really realistically exist for anyone. But then I thought, why shouldn’t I try? Maybe I can change the societal perception of this profession. I knew that if I studied theater in Spain, I wouldn’t get the same kind of education as in America. If I wanted to make a change in the industry, then I had to come here, because it is taken more seriously. In Spain, people don’t value cinema as much. They see actors as useless, and I don’t like that. Therefore, I had to make the sacrifice of leaving my family to pursue my dreams.

What advice would you give fellow students considering studying abroad in the future?

I would say be open minded, because the first days are going to be so hard, and you’ll want to return home. However sometimes the right path is not the easiest. You have to remember that it’s hard for everyone to start a new life. You have to think of it as a battle. You can always retreat, and return home when you want to. But sometimes you have to hold on and keep fighting. Because deep down you know you can win, even if the enemy, in this case, the adversities in a foreign country, seem to be far superior to yourself. You have to believe in yourself. That is the biggest advice I can give to someone. It is going to be hard, but everything is going to be okay. And you have to keep going. Also, do not idealize your new life, because if it’s not exactly as you expected it to be, you will be disappointed.

María with her mother and father
Source: María Filgueira

Was it hard to get over the language barrier when studying in a foreign country?

Yes, it was super hard to start talking in English full time. I remember when I came here in February, it was my first time in an English speaking country, so I was nervous to give good impressions and let everyone know that I was good enough to be here. I wanted them to think that they wanted me here. I was so nervous when I first came here because I couldn’t talk at all. I froze when people asked me questions and I didn’t know how to answer anyone properly. My mind went blank of all the English I knew. The second time I came when I was moving into SJU, I was super nervous because I took the plane from Portugal and I had to talk in English in that airport. It was weird there because they have Portuguese accents and I have a Spanish accent so it was hard to understand them. I was worried that when I came to the United States I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone. The first 2 weeks I was alone, and I only had to talk to people a few times a day in English. I had no problem understanding my classes, but the hardest part was talking. Now we are in week ten, I’ve been here for eleven weeks, and now I am confident in holding conversations with people in English. I thought it was the end of the world, but I realized I just had to get used to it and take it easy because it got better with time. 

What is your favorite part of studying here at SJU in Philly?

My favorite parts are the environment here, the people, my professors, and my classes. I also like the city because it’s just big enough and not overwhelming. Also obviously the campus is beautiful, and I feel like I belong here. Everyone is nice and they don’t judge you. The food is okay, and it’s very different from Spain, but I like the chicken cheesesteaks from Larry’s. I think Larry’s cheesesteaks are my favorite food here.