Monday, September 26, 2011

Kelli Chatelain; "My Golden Ticket" Gijón, Spain

When majoring in two languages, studying abroad is almost always expected. However, there were several things that always seemed to be in the way: money was one. But, as Grandpa George said in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory :
“There's plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket, there's only five of them in the whole world, and that's all there's ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?”
I didn’t literally have a golden ticket to go to the world’s best chocolate factory, but I did have my own golden ticket: the opportunity to study abroad in my favorite place in the entire world. and I didn’t want to be a dummy. Thankfully I was awarded the student fee scholarship and my parents were willing to help me out. But there was still something big standing in the way : my diabetes. I was diagnosed with type 1 when I was 9, and it is something that never goes away or gives you a break, physically, emotionally and psychologically. Everyone’s diabetes is different, but for me it is a constant struggle, a roller coaster, a see-saw. There are good days and there are horrible days, and every variation in between. When I decided to study abroad, nobody told me that I couldn’t do it. However, I had enough anxiety about traveling alone for the first time, meeting all new people and being in a foreign environment that the worry of a chronic disease almost put me over the edge. I looked at many different programs, of many different lengths and costs. Finally, I found the faculty-led program in Gijón. I felt good about the length of 5 weeks: short enough that I would be able to carry everything I needed and I wouldn’t be overwhelmed, but long enough to get to know the area and get settled. Boy was I wrong about the long enough part...

So, after getting everything set, it finally came. On the plane, I struggled keeping my blood sugar down. When I arrived, I had to change my basal rates (hourly insulin). This was difficult due to the time zone change as every hour in the body is a complex mix of hormones, stress, activity levels, carbohydrates, fat and protein. It was embarrassing to have to carry another bag when I already had too many. However, despite these hiccups, great things started to happen almost as soon as I arrived. I stayed with a family in Madrid for a few days before heading to Gijón, and they were very interested in my diabetes. Talking with them and sharing my struggles was a great way to get my Spanish going and connect with them. The grandson of the couple I stayed with asked me what my OmniPod (insulin pump) was. After answering, I prepared for the worst, but he then declared in his cute little voice, that my plastic pod-shaped little life-saving device was “so cool!”

When I arrived in Gijón, I found two more hidden benefits with my host mom. The first was that, as a diabetic, I could tell her exactly what I wanted to eat. So, when some of my classmates were complaining about the food in their home, I could openly express what I wanted or didn’t want to eat to my host mom without worrying that I would hurt her feelings.

The second is that I was able to relate and discuss in depth with my host mom the challenges of living with a chronic disease, because she had one too. We understood each other very well because of that, and we could respectfully share what is oftentimes hard to share.

Throughout my program, whether on excursions, or in class, or at home, I had plenty of highs and lows. Beyond the specifics of a high or low blood sugar, I sometimes worried or doubted in a more general sense. However I learned how to go from “What if?” to “Why not?” For the most part, I did what everyone else did. Sometimes slower, and sometimes with a different understanding. Because very little with diabetes is guaranteed, it helped me to take everything I did and appreciate it for what it was.

In the end, I think my challenges made my experience sweeter. Sometimes I was mad when I didn’t feel well when everyone else was having fun, but what I gained far outweighs those few instances. For example, I loved Spain so much, that I knew that I would have to come back. When I returned home, this gave me the motivation I needed to find a good job. Another example is the good friend I made through doing an intercambio. I count him among my best friends and treasure our friendship.

Another example is the week I spent with my brother after the program. We got to see my favorite band, Vetusta Morla, in Avilés. We went to Oviedo, and I showed him around Gijón. We went to Bilbao and fell in love with that wonderful city and the Basque Country. While there, we went to San Mamés, the stadium of my favorite soccer team, Athletic Bilbao. I even got to take pictures in the locker room next to my favorite players’ lockers. All things that I can’t put a price on and that I’ll remember forever, not to mention the wonderful cultural and linguistic immersion experience!

I feel like this disease will always be a major part of my life, but it can be more positive than negative. I would encourage anyone who has a chronic disease who wants to study abroad to think about the great things that they can gain. It will be hard sometimes, but you will still have hard times, even if you never leave home. The challenges will make you stronger. If you leave home, you’ll have extraordinary new experiences to cushion those bad patches while abroad, and into the future.

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