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Then One Day I was a Big Girl

A group of students from the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi recently traveled to Spain for an immersive learning experience that provided rich exposure to Spanish culture and cuisine, while affording myriad opportunities to capture their experiences in written and visual formats.

The majority of the trip was centered in Barcelona, with excursions to other locales during the four-week trip. Leading the program were professors Jason Cain, Chris Sparks, Mark Dolan, and R.J. Morgan – all of whom taught courses in integrated marketing communications and journalism while the group was overseas. 

The students enjoyed many cultural experiences, but they also put in a lot of academic work, too, writing in-depth features, gathering documentary photos, exploring international brands and exploring relevant topics in media studies. 

In a place as beautiful and complex as Spain, each day brought new experiences and amazing photo opportunities. Shared here are some of the images and travel essays the students captured on their journey. We hope you enjoy it.

By Kaitlyn Steinroeder

Flim Production student

I.

In less than a month I’ll turn 20. I don’t like that fact, but here we are.

On a random Wednesday in March, I called my mother. She lives 12 hours away, and I find myself calling her multiple times a day whenever the world around me falls silent. I told her I wanted to study abroad in Spain. My mother was the one who had been encouraging me to do this for months. Usually, it’s the opposite: the kid is the one trying to convince their parents to let them do something wild. But my mother knows me too well, she knows what’s good for me and how I grow. And somehow she felt strongly about me going across the ocean to take classes that don’t relate to my major with a bunch of people I didn’t know.

The semester rolled on, and my experience was heightened by the fact that I would get to go to Europe as soon as all the hard work was done. I was excited, of course, but as the window between the present moment and my departure date narrowed, excitement turned to stress and then just to nothingness. I felt still. There were no butterflies in my stomach. That excitement has crept into a new corner of my stomach and manifests as anxiety. 

Where is this? Do I have that? What will my next meal be? Where is the bathroom? Is he following me? Am I okay right now?

As I grow older, it becomes more difficult to feel excited. What I mean is that genuine excitement that keeps you up at night when you are a little kid and forces you out of bed when you have a field trip or before a big vacation.

When you’re little, you see what your parents want you to see. There are a million moving parts behind the scenes that are hidden from your view and presented to you like they are magic. As you get older, you start to notice that curtain and eventually peek behind it. Traveling outside the United States works much the same way. It changes and matures you as an individual.

Traveling overseas in this decade is a frightening, yet privileged experience. The state of the world is changing rapidly each month. The future is just as scary as the past, and here I am, floating through a world that is quite frankly nothing like the world I saw when I was little.

I’ve cried too many times this year out of pure frustration and pain at the state of the United States. When I get an alert on my phone that sends us into collective mourning (take your pick of examples), it makes me want to pack up and get away. Too much is falling on us every day; when will we rest?

The guilt sets in when I realize not everyone can afford to throw a six-hour time difference between themselves and their problems.

II.

Three young American girls barged into the restaurant and settled into the table next to us. They weren’t happy; you could see it in their faces. I overheard that they were staying in a hostel, so I can assume they weren’t the most comfortable. Their hair was soaked from the rain. I know the feeling. You get all ready, only to step outside, and all your hard work slips away with every raindrop. They sat there, out of breath, looking into space.

I wonder if they knew how big a blessing this rain was. At the far end of the city, Europe’s largest desalination plant was working its hardest to help the region fight a prolonged drought. Something tells me they didn’t know this.

I wasn’t happy either. One week in and I’d hit a dip in my experience. The average of three hours of sleep a night along with a lack of protein was not serving my body well. I am not a partier or a drinker, and I quickly realized the Barcelona club lifestyle with its 2 a.m. start times would not be my friend.

One girl broke the silence and exclaimed, “Is there mascara under my eye?”

She pulled out her phone and swiped to the Snapchat camera. She smudged the mascara that had settled under her eyes and scrunched her hair.

The girl across the table was in a trench coat. The only one prepared for the weather. She took out her phone and examined her face, patting the creased makeup in her T-Zone.

They ordered heavy amounts of tapas and sangrias, and the conversation never deviated from complaining and talking badly about other women.

“I miss Orange Theory.”

“I’m about to post on Insta!”

“I’m delusional for thinking I looked good in this photo.”

The girl in the trench coat flipped her phone to the group and zoomed in on a photo on Instagram.

“This is so unfortunate, like literally, this is so unfortunate.” They all laughed.

It was a graduation photo of a girl with fiery orange hair. I can only assume that the girls were judging this girl’s decision to dye her hair that bold shade of orange right before graduation. The girl in the photo seemed so happy. She dyed her hair that way for a reason, and it wasn’t to impress this group.

A few days earlier, I saw a sign in the Gothic Quarter neighborhood in Barcelona. It simply read, “Let People.” I kept thinking about it. Let people dye their hair weird colors. Let people wear what they want to wear. Let people be who they want to be.

The following weekend a group of girlfriends and I went to Paris. At dinner, the same type of conversation unfolded in the interim between the main course and dessert. Judgment of individuals my tablemates didn’t know. I felt like I was sitting with those girls back in Barcelona. 

In reference to that sign I’d seen earlier on the trip, I simply said, “Wait a minute, I don’t see why we can’t just let people be people. If it makes someone happy, then why do we care so much.”

Everyone turned to me with claws out, ready to dig into my heart. A whole lot of nothing was spewed at me, yet it held a lot of weight in my chest and stomach for the rest of the dinner.

I felt attacked for being a good person. My whole life, I have been told I am too nice. People kept telling me that on this trip, and I keep thinking about it.

I have always struggled in big groups of girls. I have never felt like that is where I thrive. Still, I have always chased after that acceptance because that is what is presented as the place to be. Maybe I should stop hating myself for never having that.

III.

Our study-abroad apartment was directly across from Camp Nou, the FC Barcelona football stadium.

The apartment itself was soccer themed. The wallpaper, the artwork, even my headboard–all soccer. Every time there was a game, the streets were flooded with fans experiencing the greatness before, during, and after. The sound of fans partying and chanting reverberated through our walls. Every trash can was overfilled with beer cans and bottles, and the air smelled like cigarettes and fireworks.

A few of my friends decided to buy tickets for the last game of the season. Not only would this be the season’s final game, but also the last game before Camp Nou would undergo renovations that would displace the team for a year. Despite these unique factors, I couldn’t justify the 111-euro price. After just arriving back in Barcelona following a weekend in Valencia, I was scared I would be too rushed to enjoy the experience. Also, the only things I know about soccer are from watching my sister’s rec league when she was nine.

Instead of crawling back into bed, I set out alone on a Dérive, drifting around my neighborhood following what called me. Dérive, to drift in French, is an unplanned, goalless journey through an urban environment where participants allow themselves to be drawn to things that attract them. It allows you to experience something unique and unintentional and can bring great inspiration.

Twenty minutes into my walk, I needed to pee. 

My peace was interrupted. I had to turn back and head for my apartment. The whole idea of the Dérive is not to know where you are going. How could I Dérive if I knew my destination? I started for my apartment. I turned the corner and I was startled.

Boom, boom, crackle, pop! 

I jumped. My first thought was much darker than the reality. It was just fireworks, a happy indication that Barcelona had emerged victorious.

The streets slowly became a parade of red, blue, and gold. I was a fish swimming upstream against a strong current of passionate fans. Families, friends, couples, old, young; everyone was smiling, laughing, and singing. Posters, balloons, flags, kids running through the streets with their soccer balls. It was a cheerful sight.

I found myself at a crosswalk. The walk sign was red. I looked around and quickly realized I was the only one walking toward the stadium. In front of me, a wall of hundreds of fans eager to cross. I was intimidated. I felt like an outsider. However, looking around it felt like no one was excluded.

The energy was powerful. I could feel it throughout my whole body. I took to the side of the street and peered out at the crowd once more. I let myself sit in this environment and feel everything. The once busy road was now completely free of cars. I began to tear up. It had been so long since I felt this strong of collective joy.

I soon realized my Dérive wasn’t ruined; I experienced what a true Dérive was. It took me somewhere unexpected, and the inspiration that I gained was so special. I walked over to a little stand and bought a Barcelona Football Club scarf. I proudly wore it around my neck as I walked the rest of the way to my apartment.

IV.

There is a certain point in a woman’s life when she is going about her day and realizes that she has grown up. She can do what she wants and be who she wants, which is both empowering and shocking.

Now I’m the big girl that my 5-year-old self once looked up to and admired. I’m the weirdo I wanted to be at 12, but was too scared to be. I became the adventurer I wanted to be at 15, like the girls I watched on YouTube. Now I’m the wanderer, ultimately owning and operating my own life experience. I make my own life, but sometimes I forget that.

This independence doesn’t just occur overnight; it’s earned through great failures and victories. Then one day you’re sitting at a fancy dinner with friends in another country, in a pretty dress, and it hits you. You are you. Time stands completely still. You lean back in your chair and look around. It’s like gaining consciousness again.

With this revelation, I started to reflect on all those versions of myself. All the ages and phases that brought me to this level. A level of individuality and maturity that I know all those younger versions of me would love. I looked back at little me, like a big sister, and I felt so much respect for her.

Growing up, I didn’t know exactly who I wanted to be. I struggled a lot with that. I never knew how I wanted to dress or act or be. This was hard on me and it came from worrying that I wasn’t spending my one shot on this planet exactly how I should be.

In many ways, I still struggle, but these days I have a stronger sense of self. It’s almost like I know too much about what I want, but not enough about what I don’t want. I’m only 19, but I have put so much pressure on myself to know exactly what my timeline for life is.

I started feeling very strongly about the idea of marriage and having a family from a young age. It felt like a necessity that I needed to achieve as early as possible. When I was 15, I was determined to be married in my early 20s. I thought it was ideal. Eventually, I would have three or four kids and live in a farmhouse somewhere. I was still planning on a successful career; I never doubted that I could do both.

Throughout my time in Spain, I started to do some digging on where this desire came from. I came to the conclusion that I desperately wanted security in my future. I was so scared for my 20s to come that I was just gonna force myself to give it up and give in to what society has always pushed, even if it wasn’t truly my dream. I was subconsciously convinced that children and a home and, dare I say, a man would fulfill me.

As time went on, I found myself in a tricky spot. My window to find someone and settle down before my deadline was starting to slip away and that scared me. But I also felt like I was being pulled in another direction. I began to look back at little me and think about what she would want. I sat with the present, looked to the future, and realized that this stupid timeline that was failed from the beginning would only cause me to lose myself. I was holding onto an idea of adulthood that was toxic and forced.

Now here I am on the edge of a new decade. I’ll soon turn 20 and that means I’m entering the block of life that’s supposed to define my existence. I’m crossing the threshold with none of the commitments that would have given me the 20s I thought I wanted at 15. And I’m so beyond thrilled with that.

Traveling has reminded me how much I crave self-discovery, knowledge, growth, exploration, and solitude. I truly am friends with myself and I want to experience life as an individual before I choose to spend it with someone else.

Paris is where it finally clicked for me. This is a city I always dreamed of going to as a little girl and so many things I love about life have a connection to it. Paris feels feminine and consistent, like it was built with women in mind.

In Paris I spent two days with my friend Molly. An Ole Miss grad and my former boss at the magazine I work for. She is back in the City of Light for grad school after studying abroad in undergrad. Just her, a couple duffel bags of vintage clothes and her cat. She’s alone in a foreign country, where she doesn’t speak the language or know anyone.

As we explored the city together, I felt pulled toward a decision like this. The absolute guts it takes to do this is astonishing and I wish I’d told her how proud I am of her while we were together.

It was somewhere in the city of Paris that I realized I needed to chase my true childhood dreams. The ones that may take me out of my comfort zone and force me to grow. I’ve always had so many dreams and places in my mind. My 20s are the time to find them.

Maybe that will lead me to grad school, maybe to Paris or New York or Austin or Berlin. Perhaps to an organic farm in Italy. Possibly as a filmmaker, a writer, an artist, a businesswoman. Who knows? Who cares? I’m content with not forcing anything because, as I have reminded myself throughout this whole study abroad experience that I own and operate my own life, nobody else does. Not society, not a man, not even my own limiting thoughts.


Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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