Spanish Professor Byron Barahona has studied in six countries and visited 40. Barahona has expanded his cultural horizons and learned new languages through his travels. Photo by Molly Solomon.
It was something that opened his eyes to the world, and the world became something he knew rather than envisioned. Studying abroad was much more than an academic experience — it was something that taught him about himself.

On a sunny afternoon, Byron Barahona, lecturer in Spanish at UC Santa Cruz, sat down with City on a Hill Press to share his extensive experience studying abroad. He spoke deliberately, choosing his answers with care while punctuating them often with easy laughs.

“If you follow your intuition, it may take you to interesting places — moments in your life and the discovery of experiences that you couldn’t imagine prior to that,” Barahona said.

Born in Guatemala, Barahona has studied in six different countries and visited 40. He spent most of his time abroad in Paris, studying and researching French literature.

Current students are completing their own study abroad applications as they plan what is one of the most unique experiences of their education, many through the UC’s Education Abroad Program. These applications are not to be taken lightly, as they determine where students may spend anywhere from a couple months to an entire year of time studying.

Barahona’s own experiences reflect the impact studying abroad can have on a student’s education.

After studying for a semester in Guatemala, Barahona began undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston for philosophy and for French literature.

“Boston was a pretty tough place, not very used to immigrants from Latin America,” Barahona said. “It was my first encounter with a language I barely knew.”

He credits the rapid progress he made learning English with his constant desire to be able to communicate and experience the cultures around him.

In 1987, Barahona left Boston to study for a year in Paris. As a cultural hub in Europe, Paris was the perfect place to study the French language and literature. However, studying at the Sorbonne University was only a part of the experience.

“There’s much more to French culture than its writers,” Barahona said with a nostalgic look on his face. “There’s the art, the food, there’s the joie de vivre, that attitude toward living a good life which, in many ways, influenced who I am, who I became.”

One way these aspects of culture influenced him was in his appreciation of food. Barahona laughed as he related how he had always liked eating, but it wasn’t until he went to Paris that he began paying attention to the pairing of flavors with each other and with wines.

“That was an amazing discovery, because it was a discovery of the senses in a way that I had not anticipated at all,” Barahona said. “In the end, it became a pretty good balance of that intellectual idealization I had of a life in Paris and the other areas which make us human.”

Though he was constantly learning about French culture, it was an experience that took time. Learning the language simultaneously helped in his understanding, and became quite an experience on its own.

“The progression of the language development in tandem with the life experience is something quite formidable, because it gradually opens up that culture to you,” Barahona said. “The realization that you can progress both in your understanding of the language and your understanding of the culture is simply quite amazing.”

Barahona said that an unexpected aspect of study in Paris was a developing interest in his own culture.

While traveling from Paris to other parts of Europe, Barahona encountered people who had “genuine and real questions [about Latin America] which they posted that I simply had not thought about. It made me realize that there was something in Latin American culture that was worth pursuing.”

At the end of his year in Paris, Barahona returned to Boston and added a third major, Latin American literature, to his philosophy and French literature studies.

He graduated at the age of 26 and went on to pursue his doctorate at UC Berkeley. There, he continued studying French and Latin American literature, and added Italian to the list as he worked toward a degree in Romance languages in literature.

As part of his studies, Barahona spent a summer in Florence, Italy and another in Lisbon, Portugal. He went back to France for a year and a half to do research, as well as traveling to Argentina and then back to Guatemala.

“Eventually, the road led back to it,” Barahona said.

If he could go back and spend more time somewhere he’s visited, he said, he would choose Germany. Barahona has visited almost all of Western Europe and spent some time in Germany with friends.

While much of his academic time abroad has been studying and researching, six years ago he taught in Singapore while working for Stanford University.

Of the many locales to which Barahona has not yet traveled, he said he would most like to see Japan.

“I’ve never engaged with any Asian language,” he said. “Linguistically speaking, I would be very open to the challenge of studying something radically different from what I know.”

Barahona has advice for anyone considering going abroad.

“Being immersed in a culture that is totally different from yours is quite a shock,” he said. “Students who have the courage to go somewhere shouldn’t be discouraged by that initial encounter. What’s on the other side is worth exploring.”