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Correction to This Article
This article referred to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the North American Treaty Organization.

Editor's Note:

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By Sydney Trent
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Even decades later, the memories I have of my junior year in Spain are so numerous and so vivid that I could pluck them loose for days, like beads from a ball gown.

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I remember so well the family with which I stayed in Valencia. There was the super-extroverted Elvira, who mistook my American desire for privacy for a shyness she needed to remedy; the fervently anti-American Enrique, who expected me to answer for all the sins of the Reagan era; and the three children -- the oldest, Quique, already a little man at 9, gentle David of the soulful eyes and the toddler princesa, Raquel.

I remember the dollar's reign over the peso and the loud public protests against Spain remaining in the North American Treaty Organization. And then there were the siestas, those three-hour lunchtime breaks that drove the restless Americans crazy, until we finally relaxed into them, slowly growing to admire the abandon with which the Spanish live life. Just let it happen, the Spaniards seemed to admonish us, as they set aflame their fantastical float-like creations in the city center during the spring festival of Las Fallas -- not a drop of water in sight.

I also remember being terribly homesick. There was no e-mail, or prepaid phone cards, and letters crossed the Atlantic with excruciating slowness. My nadir of despair came at Christmas break, when I alone in my group couldn't afford to go home or buy a Eurail pass. I never would have believed that I would recall it all now with wistful yearning.

Yet I do. That's because once I accepted the fact that there was no leaving until May, I just let life happen -- inhaled it, even. I returned home deeper and more aware of my place in the world.

Back in the 1980s, a relative few American students had such life-altering opportunities, but much has changed besides the advent of e-mail. Studying abroad is now considered de rigueur, a ticket that must be punched to compete in the global economy. The number of U.S. undergraduate and graduate students studying abroad has increased from just shy of 50,000 during the 1985-1986 academic year to 223,000 during 2005-2006, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education. Although 58 percent are still going to Europe, the number of students traveling to other parts of the world, including Asia, Africa and South America, is increasing.

And yet there remains something so timeless about the study-abroad experience -- something that binds all of us who have had that good fortune, whether in the 1980s or in 2008. What that quality is can be hard to articulate, but the stories that begin on Page 12 offer a pretty good start.

Sydney Trent is the Magazine's deputy editor. She studied abroad during the 1984-1985 academic year while a student at the University of Virginia. She can be reached at trents@washpost.com.


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