Students on Alcala
“It was the best experience I’ve had. It was something that I’m so happy I did. I was there for a month and I could have been there longer. There’s just so many opportunities and ways to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.”
Students from SIU spent the summer abroad in Alcalá de Henares, a Spanish city whose name means “Citadel on the (river) Henares”. Alcalá is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, having been founded in the early 16th century by Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, and it claims to be the world’s first planned university city. It is located in central Spain, and is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the poet and author who famously penned Don Quixote.
Jessica Manera, a Spanish Education junior, spent two months taking classes in Alcalá. There she was surrounded by students from other universities and programs. “The section of the university where we were was only for American students. I kind of made a core group of friends. There were about 5 or 6 people that I became friends with. We got really close. You build up a bond with all of these people, and you are experiencing the same new thing together. That was one of my favorite things, getting to meet new people and going through it together. You get closer than you think you would.”
One of those friends was Emily Dieckmann, a Spanish and Advertising major from SIUC who hopes to graduate in the fall of next year. Emily has been studying Spanish since the 7th grade, and she had heard that to really grasp a foreign language you have to spend some time abroad. In her opinion it’s true. “Everyone always said that to understand what you’re saying you have to immerse yourself. I’ve always wanted to travel to Spain, and be in a place where I’m forced to speak the language. It’s sink or swim.” Jessica agrees, and admits that this was a large part of her motivation for studying abroad. “It was really to improve my speaking. I wanted to be immersed in the culture, and be forced to practice Spanish constantly. I had no choice. If I wanted to survive, I had to speak Spanish.” She quickly noticed her Spanish skills improving. “I saw a change within the first couple weeks. Not only that, while I was there I was exposed to many different accents. I really think that helped me to be able to understand better.”
How was the food? “It was good!” says Emily. “Most of the experience of food was from my host mom. She always gave us way too much food! There was usually bread and fish and fruit. It was amazing. Sometimes she would pack us lunches if we were traveling or if we asked her to. That was always giant sandwiches, fruit and water.” Jessica was similarly impressed. “I really liked it. My host mom was a very good cook. To me, it was fun trying different things. I haven’t yet made anything that I’d eaten there, but in Spain they use a lot of olive oil and I feel like I’ve kept that habit. My host mom’s habits rubbed off on me a bit. I just like trying new things, so it was cool to experience their culture for their food.”
Life in Spain seemed to have a quality of leisure to it, especially in relation to food. Jessica explained, “One big thing about Spain is that they have tapas. So, when we had time between doing homework we would get them in the afternoon, but before supper. It was part of the Spanish tradition of the siesta, where you take the afternoon to relax or nap. That was another thing that I liked that was different from here. You could sit outside a café and have a drink and eat tapas. We don’t really do that here, sit and relax in that way. It was nice.”
This is not to say the students didn’t work hard. “During the evenings Emily and I had a lot of homework. Our classes were pretty difficult. That would consume a lot of our time, though sometimes we would go for walks at night around the town.” It can be strange trying to navigate a new city. “It was not as easy as everyone made it sound. The public transportation is so different. But once I got the hang of it I was fine.”
Learning how to use local transportation can help make one’s study abroad experience that much more full, and allows for independent exploration. “The weekends we spent traveling,” says Emily. “We had class Monday through Thursday, and we didn’t have class Friday unless there was a fieldtrip. Fieldtrips were part of classes, but they were usually to museums. We went to Valencia and Barcelona on our own, and they were amazing cities. On our field trips we went to Segovia and Toledo. In Segovia there was the castle of Alcázar, The Reyes Catolicas (Catholic Kings). We saw a Roman aqueduct. That was beautiful, and huge! In Toledo there was a very nice monastery, and there we got to see the religions that were practiced over the years in Spain. There was always time given to us so that we could explore on our own.” Jessica, who was there for a month longer than Emily, did some traveling of her own. “For the people that were there 2 months there was a break in between of 5 days. During that time I went to Paris with a few other students. That was a great trip. I also stayed in Europe a little longer, after the program had ended. I had the opportunity to go to Venice and Rome, which were both incredible.”
Jessica and Emily shared fond memories of their host mother. They stayed with Maria, a woman who has hosted students for many years. “She usually does it in the summer. She has three bedrooms. When I was leaving she was preparing for someone coming from France. She makes it feel like you’re her daughter. While I was there she got tons of letters from people who had stayed with her. She told us stories of them, and I know she’ll tell stories about us!” Emily said that she plans to send Maria a letter of her own to thank her for such a wonderful experience. “Almost all of my friends had good host parents,” says Jessica. “They do a good job of matching you with someone that is kind of like you, or at least someone that will understand that you are at a lower level of Spanish than them and they will work with you.”
Students who return from studying abroad often report that they found the experience both challenging and rewarding, and some rank it among their most profound life changing adventures. Emily expressed similar sentiment. “It’s so different. It’s just invaluable. A once in a lifetime experience.” Study abroad is an important means of cultural exchange and, given the relative geographic isolation of our own nation, it can provide a rare but vital window into the lives of people across the globe, showing us both our shared traditions and practices as well as our differences. We look forward to hearing of the journeys of all our students involved in study abroad, which may even include your own!