My biggest fear was standing out, but in Argentina I had no choice.
Getting accepted into Georgetown University is the best thing that's ever happened to me, I thought my senior year of high school. Two years prior, I fell in love with the campus that reminded me of Hogwarts during a trip to D.C. At the time, I was an aspiring C.I.A. analyst and was excited to attend a school that had a strong international relations program. But most importantly, I envisioned Georgetown as the place where I would finally fit in. Where I'd meet people who were "just like me."
Move in day was a shock. Even with the chaos of moving into my dorm, I couldn't help but notice the flurry of parents and students in pastel shorts with critters and sweaters draped ever-so-perfectly around their shoulders. Coming from a large and diverse public high school in Texas, I felt immediately out of place. My mom even commented that the majority of the other people of color worked in the cafeteria or on the custodial staff.
After tearful goodbyes, I began to learn more about my classmates. They went to boarding and prep schools, spent their summer vacations in Belgium and also volunteered in Africa, or spent their weekends clubbing in NYC — all experiences completely unlike my own.
When classes started, it didn't take long for me to feel completely inadequate. The subjects that came easiest to me in high school were hard. I slept in my micro-economics class when I realized that I didn't understand any of it. In my 17-year old eyes, everyone was better than me. I wondered repeatedly why I even got into the school. One week during the first semester, we were split into teams for a class debate. After hiding in the backs of classrooms for most of the semester, I had to do the one thing that terrified me most: speaking out loud. So I prepared, all night, on my talking points. I planned every word I would say. And in class the next day, I felt confident. Until I listened to everyone else.
When it was my turn to present, the words that I had practiced repeatedly the night before became jumbled, twisted, nonsensical. As part of the assignment, we were to critique and score everyone's presentation. One comment from a classmate summed up most of the other comments and is forever etched in my mind: weak. It was a written affirmation of how I felt about myself.
Fast forward to sophomore year and my African history class. In discussion section, we were supposed to share ideas about weekly readings. It was the one class where I finally felt that I had something to contribute. The way I would present my idea played out incessantly in my mind. But I opened my mouth and the thought remained trapped. I can't say it, I'm going to look stupid. I haven't talked all semester, what will people think when I speak now? I didn't speak.
But I found my voice in Buenos Aires during my semester abroad, junior year. No longer could I hide behind my insecurities. By immersing myself in Spanish, I had to strip away my pride and my fear of "looking dumb" to survive. I had to expose the part of myself I had tried so desperately to hide. While I had studied Spanish for years, this was the first time that I had to apply the skills to everyday situations.
A few weeks after I moved to Buenos Aires, I stood shoulder to shoulder on a packed bus heading home. When I felt a man groping me, I whipped around and he looked back at me, smiling. I wanted to scream at him, but I didn't have the right words. My mind raced through all the Spanish curse words I knew, but when I envisioned myself saying them, it sounded all wrong. So I faced front again, both seething and terrified. And he kept touching me.
There was also the time I got disoriented in the subte, or subway, on my way home. I paced back and forth at the station and hopped on a train before realizing I was on the wrong one. Frustrated and upset, I wanted to take a taxi home, but I didn't want to spend the money. So I tried to ask for help with an assistant, but I couldn't find the Spanish words I was looking for. My voice started rising and tears gathered in my eyes.
I turned away, but the attendant stopped me. Slow down, he said, and tell me where you're trying to go.
Really, there was no other option but to embrace my uniqueness as a black woman in Buenos Aires. Argentina's population is incredibly homogeneous and my brown skin stuck out spectacularly. I couldn't hide walking down the streets, where men would call out oye morrocha and people would ask to take pictures with me. There were days when I didn't want to leave home, exhausted by the staring and comments, but I pushed through it.
Eventually, I settled into my routine. I could find my way home with ease. I frequently chatted with the owners of the lavandería downstairs. My friends and I had our favorite hangout spots. I felt like I was home.
But one of the biggest obstacles came at the end of the semester in the form of an oral exam. During an oral exam, professors drill students on topics learned during the semester in a one-on-one session — my worst nightmare. I took two courses at the public university, and although the topics were interesting, I hesitated to contribute because I was in school with native Argentines.
However, when it came time for the exam, I noticed something different about myself. My anxiety and self-doubt were replaced with determination and peace. I knew that if I could conquer Buenos Aires, city thousands of miles away from home, where I wasn't fluent in the language, where I stood out everyday, I could conquer the exam.
So I did. Although my Spanish wasn't perfect, I understood and answered to the best of my ability. I ended up getting a decent grade in the course. And I brought back the best souvenir for myself, confidence. For the first time in the entirety of my experience at Georgetown, I felt comfortable being me. I was empowered enough to speak out and disagree, and fully express myself. If I could survive the city, why can't I survive school in my own turf? I learned that my insecurities about not belonging were not justified. Students and professors enjoyed my presence and my ideas.
I also flourished socially and felt at home, just in time for graduation.