Every summer since the second grade, I have been going to a summer camp for only Spanish kids. From Tarifa to Toledo, each year entails a month of living in a small Spanish town to immerse myself in a new location. I am always one of just a handful of English speakers in a swarm of Spaniards. The pressure to speak in Spanish about complex issues with native speakers often brings me immense discomfort. In the past, attending camp made me feel like an outsider. With each year my dislike only grew—until this summer.
Feeling insecure that I had nothing planned for the summer, I decided to return to camp for a final year to fill my time. I was dreading the process of connecting with my fellow campers and making new friends in a different language. I didn’t want to talk about the fact that I had nothing academic planned for the summer—especially not in Spanish. I was worried that the rest of the students were starting to build their résumés while I had nothing on mine.
When I arrived at camp in July, I was assigned to a tent with all Spanish girls as tentmates. They began to ask me questions—“Where are you from? How old are you? What do you like to do in your free time?” As I was bombarded with all of these questions, I began to realize these girls didn’t care about what school I went to or what my academic interests were. They made me feel comfortable with myself. I was happy to speak about something other than school, no matter what language it was in. I began to embrace the Spanish language. Even with my countless grammar mistakes, I was excited to speak.
School only came up in our conversations once in passing when two girls discussed the colleges they wanted to apply to. Soon, the entire group joined in and began to list amazing English and American universities. They talked about how many kids from their school got into those colleges—and the numbers were high. Since my first day at camp, I believed that this summer’s lack of academic conversation was due to the other girls’ disinterest in school. But my assumption was proved false. School was something they didn’t believe dictated their future. They were so nonchalant about the application process; if they didn’t get in, then they didn’t get in. They didn’t believe what school they got into or the grade they received determined their intelligence or self-worth. They were all relaxed; I had never heard of a teenager relaxed about school.
I expressed my shock to the girls and they explained that school wasn’t the center of their lives. After asking more questions about their school life, I realized that their communities didn’t place extreme academic expectations on them. And without the expectations, their academic lives seemed to have less pressure than students’ academic lives at GDS. I realized how different my experiences were from theirs.
One of the biggest contrasts between our lives was the lack of constant academic encouragement and reassurance that many American students receive and crave. This culture does not exist in Spain. Especially in the D.C. area and throughout the GDS community, teachers, friends and even parents constantly tell students how intelligent they are. I have heard this same sentence said in numerous ways—“You guys are GDS students; you are smart enough to do this,” or “You are GDS students; I know you are smarter than this.” These small comments make all the difference since they are a constant reminder of the emphasized importance of grades and school at GDS. When my peers and I are consistently and almost relentlessly praised and called intelligent on a daily basis, I feel like I have to connect my education to my self-worth, and I feel like every grade I receive begins to feel like a reflection of my value as a person.
Once I came to GDS in my freshman year, I was surrounded by high-achieving students and had to keep up with a rigorous curriculum. Students constantly talk about grades, internships, elite sports and academic camps. I have found myself constantly comparing myself to other students and diminishing my own successes.
While I was initially afraid of my final year at camp, meeting new people was the experience I didn’t know I needed. It allowed me to escape the GDS bubble and taught me there is more to your teenage years than worrying about your future.
I encourage my peers to take a different approach to thinking about school. It is so easy to get sucked into a culture at GDS where grades and academic achievements are what largely shape your idea of your self-worth. By staying in another country for a month, I gained insight that has allowed me to take a less rigid approach to school. I hope that my fellow students see that there is more to school, learning and your future than the grades you receive.