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UK Student Finds Second Home Through Education Abroad


By Sarah Geegan

"Every time I take a trip, I find myself missing home. The people. The culture. The weather," says JR Leach, a triple-major in political sciencehistory and Hispanic studies, who is currently studying in Granada, Spain.

But he is not referring to Lexington.

"I've travelled internationally before and for extended periods of time, and I've always remembered and missed what most people would consider my home in America," Leach said. "But Granada is where all cards are off. Granada has become my home."

Studying through the International Study Abroad program (ISA) throughout the spring 2012 semester, Leach, a student in the Honors Program and member of Phi Kappa Tau, is taking five courses abroad through the Universidad de Granada. His coursework spans across the history of Spain; geography of Spain; notions of Spanish grammar; Spanish speaking and writing skills; and the political systems of Spain and the European Union.

"All my courses are taught exclusively in Spanish," Leach said. "So my Spanish speaking skills have improved dramatically. Also, learning about the culture, especially the Granada and Andalucía culture, has been pretty incredible."

This vastly different cultural climate represented an initial challenge for Leach, though he regards this experience as a crucial asset for future endeavors.

"There are so many differences," Leach said. "In Granada, they put a lot of emphasis on the way people present themselves and dress. At first when I chose to wear, like any college student in Kentucky on a chilly morning, sweatpants and a North Face, I garnered the attention of the entire city as I walked past. So that was something I had to get used to. Also, restaurant owners here prefer when customers throw their garbage after a meal on the ground. It's a sign of pride that their business is succeeding, and that the evening has been especially profitable."

Leach found assistance acclimating to these various cultural differences through his host family—  whom he calls his "Spanish brothers" and "second mother." Leach said his family's and the entire city's hospitality astounded him.

"I'm from the south," Leach said. "We do hospitality well, and I'm proud of that. But even we may fall short of Granadinos."

He also credits his friends that he met abroad, with whom he traveled all across Europe, from Spain to Hungary, and Italy to the United Kingdom, for his cultural adjustment. 

Leach said his coursework in Granada will compliment all three of his majors, particularly his Spanish major, not simply because of his proficiency with the language, but also because of his deepened understanding of cultural factors.

"Granada is heavily Catholic like the rest of Spain, but due to its proximity to Africa, the Muslim, Arabic and African influences are still incredibly tangible," Leach said. "I don't feel like a lot of people realize that."

As he prepares to return to his "first" home in Kentucky, Leach said his experience abroad equipped him with innumerable benefits and a new perspective.

"I think my experience abroad will help me in a number of ways," Leach said. "First and foremost, I've experienced other cultures and I am willing to accept differences between myself and others because of my experience in an incredibly different culture. Also, being bilingual is certainly a useful tool in my region of the country, where, in any future career, it's incredibly likely that I will encounter a Spanish-speaker."

Outside of professional advantages, Leach said that his time abroad also benefitted him personally.

"I believe that travelling internationally and misunderstanding things, as well as dealing with things as simple as transportation mishaps, has made me a more patient person. I've become more accepting to inefficiency, and instead I find more purpose in the journey than the destination. It may be a cliché, but it's true."