Why international students should check out Semana Santa in Spain this April
A great chance to develop cultural intelligence this Easter for international students in Spain. Source: Shutterstock

Last Sunday saw the start of Holy Week. From Palm Sunday to Easter, this is Catholicism’s most sacred period. Nowhere in Europe is this occasion more famous than Spain’s Semana Santa.

And no one could benefit more from attending this event than international students studying in Europe.

The main reason for this? Cultural awareness.

It’s easy to get bogged down with exams and assignments while at university. We end up spending too much of our usual routines and with the same circle of friends, sometimes the same people from our home countries. But events like Semana Santa, where a country is transformed visually into a unique once-in-a-year affair, offers us a rare opportunity to truly immerse ourselves in another country’s unique culture.

Spain’s Santa Semana celebration commemorates events in the days leading up to the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Hundreds of processions take place around-the-clock – an atmosphere of pounding feet, music and church brotherhoods leading the way. Cities will be full of excited people, all of whom have come to watch the celebrations unfold and party the week away in bright religious costumes.

Members of the brotherhoods don a nazareno. A penitential robe which consists of a tunic and a pointed hood to hide their faces. The anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan maliciously adopted the robe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Source: Shutterstock

Seville is the centre of it all. This is where life-size, painted wooden images – representing scenes from the Passion or the Virgin, for example – are paraded around the city on large floats by the brotherhoods.

Spain upends its daily routine throughout the week, so international students have the privilege of observing how the event shapes locals’ views, values, religious practice, etc.

As Marcel Proust, the French novelist, once said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands but in seeing with new eyes”. These observations may seem fleeting but in the long run, offer a unique alternative perspective and global awareness, ie. cultural intelligence, in us.

What this broadly means is “the extent to which someone’s understanding of himself or herself is ‘clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable’,” according to Harvard Business Review.

Surveying 1,874 participants, the business journal found “that people who had lived abroad reported a clearer sense of self than people who had not.”

“In the study we just described, we found evidence that people’s self-discerning reflections—musings on whether parts of their identity truly define who they are or merely reflect their cultural upbringing—are a critical ingredient in the relationship between living abroad and self-concept clarity,” it wrote. Those who lived abroad engaged in these musings more than people who had never lived abroad.

This is because they are out of their comfort zone “surrounded by others who mostly behave in similar ways”. Thus, they do not feel moved to question “whether their own behaviours reflect their core values or the values of the culture in which they are embedded”.

By contrast, “our data found that people’s exposure to novel cultural values and norms prompts them to repeatedly engage with their own values and beliefs, which are then either discarded or strengthened.”

If this isn’t reason enough to take part in one of Spain’s liveliest celebrations, other social science studies also found such experiences on foreign lands also reduce intergroup bias, enhance creativity, and promote career success.

Enjoy Santa Semana and a very happy Easter to all!

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