When I got the email from the Exchange Student Program to attend UGA for Fall 2014 and Spring 2015 I swear images of High School Musical passed through my head. I thought the American College Experience would be something like Troy Bolton and the cool crowd hanging out on the quad, Sharpay and the theater kids practicing in the School of Art, and every now and then a random group bursting into a synchronized song and dance in the middle of the dining hall.
I was excited and scared as hell to complete my fourth year of college in a new place, where people didn’t speak my first language and where the school population was a whopping 26,278 while my school at home was smaller than North Campus. It was intimidating.
Thankfully I got to room with three awesome girls who helped me with everything from scheduling my bus route to picking out my outfit for the first day of class. At the beginning all I wanted was to blend in and apparently to do that I had to wear Nike shorts and free t-shirts from assorted UGA events. Because who wants to look like a tourist?
Once I thought I was blending in (but in reality I am the paler version of Dora the Explorer, which I actually was for Halloween) I felt pretty confident in my ability to make friends right away.
My excessive amounts of excitement, which could be attributed to your typical freshman was because of this new, fresh start. Now I had the freedom to be anyone I wanted to be without any prior label. Because of my overwhelming enthusiasm I saw it fitting to force my friendship on people in any situation possible; whether it was in the dining hall, in class, on the bus, or even passing through Tate plaza.
By the time football games rolled around I felt like I had all 759 acres of UGA’s campus in the palm of my tiny Latina hand. So when the first game rolled around my roommates gave me the low down on what a typical game day is like. Fortunately one of my roommates is on the majorette line, and I have to say she is the prettiest, don’t tell the others; and she said “just remember these three things and you’ll do fine: hydrate, get to the stadium early, and wear red and black”. So I called my madre and she sent me some red and black dresses.
Finally it was Saturday in Athens and I was ready for action. My outfit was complete with a Georgia G on my cheek and a pompom in hand as I headed to this mysterious tailgating event that I had heard so much about. I walked into Myers Quad, realized that I didn’t know anyone and immediately decided to use my tactic of forcing my friendship on the first person that I even vaguely recognized. I broke the first rule of game day as instructed by my roommate by getting too involved in a rousing game of corn hole and completely exempted any form of hydration.
Once my body was depleted of water I decided I should head over to the stadium. However, I still didn’t see the importance of being there early because it was just another Saturday with just another game of football like every other year. So my very diverse group of friends and I decided to start making our way there not too long before kickoff.
Once settled in the stadium with the sun beating down on me and my friends we began to get into the game. Not long after the start, my tiny Japanese friend fainted because of the heat, forcing us to leave before I got to see my roommate perform at half-time. After that trial run I took notes on my roommates’ advice.
My love for UGA started growing; I even started enjoying country music, got my own monogrammed necklace, and developed a taste for whiskey cokes. At this point, every time I stepped foot in Bourbon I started recognizing the songs and even singing them.
Although I began to adapt to certain things in the South I still maintained my Latina feistiness and continued to blast my salsa music in the living room with pride.
Throughout the year, I transformed from Dora the Explorer: UGA Edition into a more independent, confident and mature version of myself. This experience pushed me to get out of my comfort zone, and even if it was terrifying at first, I have to say it was the greatest experience of my life. And yes, I improved my English, but I still struggle with certain sounds, such as; when attempting to emphasize the letter “Z” I pronounce it as “C” as in “Cebra.” My accent still fails to accurately translate certain sounds, but I’ve learned to use it to channel my inner Sofía Vergara.
No one rejected me when I was being, well, unapologetically me, but I never liked myself when I was trying to be someone else, it just felt wrong.
My advice to y’all who want to try something out of your comfort zone is don’t second guess yourself and just go for it. Embrace who you are, and don’t doubt the strength and power of your uniqueness. Even if the blending in strategy seems like the best option, in the long run, embracing what makes you “you” will be a much more fulfilling experience. Even though at times I wish I were wearing that whale brand (Vineyard Vines) I was happy that I always donned my Puerto Rican style with pride.
I’m extremely sad that this experience is over, but I have taken home with me my love of Southern hospitality, the appreciation of your politeness, the constant use of “ma’am, and all the cute southern boys always holding the door.
Even if it was only for a year, I will always consider myself a proud bulldawg fan that bleeds red, black and even a little bit of southern sass. I will remember the Georgia Bulldogs for their enthusiasm for everything they do and their commitment to “finish the drill.” It will be bittersweet to trade the cowboy boots at the rodeo for my toes in the sand at the clear water Puerto Rican beaches, but I’m excited to be home with this improved version of me.