CHARLESTON, S.C. - College of Charleston junior Christa Horrocks traveled 4,131 miles to have a life-changing experience. Along the way she became nearly fluent in another language, had to use that language in a scary situation to call the U.S. Embassy and experienced life in a place completely different than anything she had ever known.
Horrocks, a member of the CofC track & field team participated in a campus study aboard program, where she spent six weeks based in Trujillo, Spain.
"Before I left I thought it would be neat to go since I like Spanish," Horrocks said. "Being there, I fell in love with it and I didn't expect to. It was an amazing experience."
Horrocks, who found out about the program at a Spanish Club meeting at local restaurant Yo Burrito, left her family in the U.S. and took an eight hour plane ride from Atlanta to Madrid, followed by a three hour bus ride to meet her new family.
"I was standing with my sign that had the name of my family and I was freaking out because I was so tired and couldn't remember any Spanish," she said.
Horrocks spent her time with a host family that she fell in love with. The family had a madre (mother) and padre (father), four-year-old daughter Sophia and eight-year-old son Marcos. In the evenings Horrocks would Skype with her family back home and Sophia would sit on her lap and say hola (hi in Spanish) to Horrock's parents.
A normal day would consist of two classes, one a conversation class and another, a history class, which would last into early afternoon. Horrocks would return home and help her family make lunch, which in Spanish culture is the biggest meal of the day. She took an interest in learning about the different traditional food, such as Gazpacho, a popular tomato-based soup traditionally served cold.
Horrocks found herself in culture shock her first few days and said she felt alone in the beginning, having trouble with the language and communicating with her host family. She said there were nights she cried herself to sleep out of frustration and being homesick.
Then she had a breakthrough.
Horrocks was out to lunch with her family and was sitting down with her madre and padre, while the kids were downstairs in a game area.
"I had a moment of clarity," she said. "Everything almost sounded like English the way I heard it. I knew everything I was saying was right and it was just coming out so easily."
A day or two later Horrocks had her first dream in Spanish. She dreamt she was lost and was asking directions in Spanish. The dream only lasted a short while and she was awoken by a friend and she continued to speak in Spanish.
"It's so interesting learning another language," she said. "It's like putting pieces of a puzzle together and eventually things started to click."
Becoming more confident and getting through difficult situations, like navigating the metro in Madrid Horrocks continued to grow. She was able to take side trips to Andalucía, Seville, Portugal and Granada.
Along to way she sampled the food, the fashion and went to a fair in Granada. In Seville Horrocks visited the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and the third-largest church in the world, constructed in 1507.
"The whole landscape of the places we visited was breath taking," Horrocks said. "I felt so blessed to have the opportunity to experience so many unique places and interact with so many interesting people."
Horrocks also found time to keep up with her training for the track & field team, a task that was not easy. Horrocks described the climate like in Africa where it is incredibly hot and without much air. She paid euros to go to a gym, where hardly anyone was there and it didn't have much of the equipment she was used to. Even though it was hard, the scenery made it unique.
"I got to wake up and run by cathedrals," she said. "It was amazing."
Horrocks and her friends became nearly fluent in Spanish, which they used in a scary situation when a classmate went missing in Portugal.
They called jails and hospitals and nobody could find the kid. They even called the U.S. Embassy. The whole class gathered in the lobby hoping the kid would come back and eventually after almost 14 hours he did. It turned out the kid couldn't remember where his hotel was and got lost.
From having class in a castle that reminded her of Hogwarts, to learning a new language and culture, to helping her Spanish family learn English, Horrocks had an experience she think everyone should go through.
"I feel like it's important to have an experience where you are completely out of your comfort zone," she said. "You have to figure out who you are and what you are going to make of the situation. I wanted to see what I was made of and there were nights when I did cry myself to sleep."
"I got through it and to show for it I have great friends," she added. "I kept up with my workouts and I did it and I'm so happy that I did it. Before I left I couldn't even speak in public without getting ready nervous and now I feel like I can do anything. I wish I could tell more people that they need to do this and study abroad."
Horrocks, who will likely minor or get a double major in Spanish and Marine Biology, would set up skype sessions and translate between her mom and her madre. She hopes in the future they will get to meet and has already talked to her mom about going back and bringing her along.
In the end it was a life-changing experience.
"I think I was in that bubble and now I have a much greater perspective," Horrocks said. "It was so neat to experience life in another person's shoes and to see what they are going through. I miss my Spanish family a lot and still keep in touch with them."
When she goes back to Spain, she has a place to stay. Her Spanish family gave her a set of their house keys and said she is always welcome.