My international exchange in Spain

Dean Nina overlooking mountains in Spain

Before I left for Pamplona, a friend of mine said to me that while in Spain I would have the opportunity to travel and asked me where I wanted to go most. I responded, “I will do some travelling, but I want to immerse myself and have a local experience.” We’ve all heard the expression, “Be careful what you wish for.” Well, I got everything I asked for and more.

In the build-up to leaving for Spain, I had no nerves. I finished my internship on Friday and was set to fly to Barcelona on Monday. I was at peace, ready for whatever awaited me. In Barcelona, despite a very interesting and sleepless flight, I began exploring immediately. Everything was beautiful and new, and the feeling of excitement only grew. Soon, I took a train to Pamplona, where I would stay for four months. As I stepped out of the train station, the reality of what was to come hit me.

After struggling to communicate with the taxi driver who spoke no English, I realized I needed to learn Spanish and to learn it quickly. I had always wanted to speak Spanish, which was part of my decision to come to Spain. I knew little English was spoken where I was, and people questioned how I would manage. I always laughed and said, “I’ll figure it out and that’s the fun part.”

At my residence, I committed to starting conversations in Spanish with everyone I met. Initially, these conversations were simple, but they gradually became longer as I practiced. Friends later joked about how many people knew me from conversations in the elevator.

Group shot of international exchange students in Spain
Dean Nina (back row, second from right) with friends he met in Pamplona.

I began meeting people who would become close friends, though we didn’t know it yet. After about ten days, I had spoken with many but befriended mainly exchange students due to my limited Spanish. That was until one Thursday night, feeling unwell, I stayed in while others went out. A group of Spanish speakers invited me to play cards. I told them yes, but that I would probably head to bed soon because I was a little sick. We ended up talking until 3 am. The same thing happened the next night.

Soon after, these groups merged, and we formed a group of friends from over ten countries whose first languages included Spanish, English, French, German and Russian. A unique group of people to say the least. Everything was going fantastic, and I remember telling people back home how I never wanted to leave, despite only being there a month.

I didn’t know it yet, but everything was about to change. In the beginning of October, I woke up expecting a normal day, little did I know I would be in surgery that night. I had been in an unforeseen and pretty horrific accident, the kind I wouldn’t have believed would happen even if you had told me it would. After successful surgery, my road to recovery was just beginning. I had to be hospitalized and was immobile. As you can imagine, this was a very difficult situation and a rollercoaster of emotions to say the least. Being in a foreign country and not fluent in the language made the situation even more unique. There were discussions about returning to Canada, but I never considered it. I insisted on staying in Spain, completing my courses, and enjoying my time the best I could. They must have thought I was crazy, and I wouldn’t have blamed them because I was bedridden, had lost feeling in my leg and was in a lot of pain. Crazy or not, that is exactly what I did. It was incredibly challenging both physically and mentally, but slowly, step by step, I got myself walking again.

Dean Nina recovering in hospital in Spain

While I was in the hospital, those friends I mentioned earlier — who had known me for only a few weeks — visited me regularly. I can’t tell you how much this meant to me and how much they helped me during that time. Whenever someone visited me, they would always tell me how unlucky I was or how sorry they were for me, and I mean, what else are they going to say? I always told them, “I appreciate it, but you don’t understand how lucky I am. I have the opportunity to walk again.” I always chose to see the positive in it, and viewed it as an opportunity to grow. I couldn’t change what had happened, and I definitely wasn’t a victim of it, not in the slightest. I even told myself that this was the only time I would be recovering from surgery in a Spanish hospital, so I better make the most of it knowing that I would look back at it with a smile. 

During my exchange I met so many amazing people, and as you can imagine, we all became very close, honestly like a second family. I always say I loved Pamplona, I really did, but what I miss the most are the people and the connections I made. I spent every day with them, going to class, eating, going to the gym, going out and everything in between. It really was an extremely unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience. Towards the end of the exchange, you start to think about the end. The things you want to do, the things you have to say to people — in my case, many thank-yous — and the places you want to visit one last time. You also start thinking about all the amazing things and lessons you have learned along the way and how different your life is from just a few months ago.

By going on exchange at the University of Navarra, I learned so many things, more than I even realize today. I had my life flash before me, literally, and had the opportunity to find hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. I had the opportunity to challenge myself and develop in so many ways. I met and became best friends with people from all over the world, people who were truly there for me when it mattered most. I experienced an entirely different world, and I truly enjoyed every moment.

When I left Pamplona, I felt like I was losing a part of myself and some of the closest people in my life beyond my family. I now know that they were never lost, and never will be, just further away. Someone may read my story and be persuaded not to take a leap of faith and go out to experience something new, something that challenges them. If that is the case, then you deeply misunderstand my message. I encourage everyone to take a risk, try something new, spark up a conversation with a stranger, and go out and experience life. Take it from someone who experienced almost every emotion there is; you will look back at it with a smile on your face. All of the memories, good and bad, are learning opportunities and they become a part of your story. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

I want to thank everyone I met in Spain for an experience that will last a lifetime. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of my doctors, nurses, professors, the exchange team and all the people and friends I met along the way. Without you, I would not be writing about my time in Pamplona. It may be hard to believe, but I would truly do it all over again. 

No risk. No story.