Studying Abroad Lesson 2: Grade A Student Uses the “F Word”

Square Peg Kids guest contributor, Hannah, is a 17 year old High School student from Central Oregon. When she was nine, she told her mother she was going to live in Spain. Eight years later she’s finally there in Andalucia, and finding out it’s a little bit different than what she’d imagined in her nine-year-old head. Apparently, she’s growing up, and it’s taking place in Southern Spain.

Read Hannah’s articles about “fitting in” to a completely different culture.

Study Abroad Lesson 2 of 4: Grade A Student Uses the “F Word”


WARNING: If you are thinking of studying abroad, be aware that the educational system in other countries may throw you for a scholastic loop. Talk about not fitting in

I am a grade-A student, and figured that it would be something that I carried with me to Spain.  I was wrong. Instead of blowing all the Spaniards away with my school projects and awesome test scores, I found myself failing each and every class- even English!  For someone like myself who considers a B a minor failure, I was in unfamiliar territory. I did not fit in.

The Spanish school system.

Spain‘s curriculum ensures every student will get more or less the same education from each grade. The only choice students have when it comes to classes, is their course of study.   At the age of 12, Spanish students choose between Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences. They can change their path every two years, but that decision only affects a few of their 11 classes.  The first 6 years are primary school, the second four years are secondary school, and the last two years are a non-mandatory option called “Bachillerato.”

Having gone to two different Spanish schools this year,  I can safely make assumptions about the school system here that wouldn’t show up on an official Spanish academic website. My classes in America were based on projects, presentations, essays, discussions, and other interactive methods of learning. My classes in Spain are mostly based on learning an exact curriculum, and being tested on nearly every detail of it.

Essays are not the norm in Spanish schools.  When I shared with my classmates that I often write 500 word essays in my American school, they were appalled.  There’s also a major focus here on academics rather than sports, community service, or having a job. While my American school offers a whopping 60 sports groups and other clubs in which students can participate, I believe the only way to get involved in school here outside of class is through lunchtime soccer tournaments.  And at least a third of my friends have failed one or two grades and had to repeat an entire year of school.

It’s not what you know. I thought I knew “English”

When I first arrived a month into school, I was eager to prove myself as a smart and worthy exchange student by getting the best grades possible. I paid attention, I studied, and did all the assigned homework. But still, I failed nearly every class. At first it was just Latin and Greek, classes I didn’t understand in the first place. But then it was French, History, Journalism, even English at one point. It was humiliating and it made me feel like I had overestimated myself in just about every aspect of life. Then, after months of cringing every time I got back a test with red markings all over it, I realized that it was OK that I was failing.

I realized that sometimes I’m going to be in situations where I can’t succeed, and that it doesn’t make me a bad person.


I’m fortunate that most of my grades this year won’t be going on my official transcript. But it’s still a hard thing for others to grasp, even when I explain to them that it really is OK.  But my fellow Spanish students’ reactions are quite entertaining, as the idea that school is not important to me (even if just for the year) is inconceivable for most Spaniards.

As a result of this once-dreaded F-WORD, I now see things differently.  I accepted the situation I was in as being something I just had to get through and one of those “teachable moments” Mom always told me about. Maybe studying abroad was not just about exploring a different culture, trying new foods, and meeting new people. What doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger, right?

If anything, at least I learned something from failing school.

Continue on to read Hannah’s Lesson 3: Friends and Amigos.

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