“Well, how was it?”
The quick answer? Traveling to Spain with CIEE Open Campus was one of the most rewarding decisions I have ever made.
There were so many different aspects about my trip that I loved, which makes that question more difficult to answer each time.
In just 18 weeks, I cultivated my emotional, social and cultural growth by engaging in as many activities and opportunities as possible.
The first thing that comes to my mind are the people that I met: my host family, friends from the program and local Spaniards. I think particularly of the relationship that I built with my host father, Jorge.
As a gay man moving to Madrid, I was FREAKING out that I would be placed with a family of strict religious beliefs and not be accepted. However, I arrived to learn that CIEE was able to place me with Jorge, who was also a gay man.
This sense of shared experience was crucial towards my feelings of safety, security and understanding abroad. Another important thing about my housing arrangement was that Jorge had a dog, Toffee! Toffee slept with me almost every night and even cried when I left the house for classes.
He made me feel closer to home, as I have a western terrier back in the states. Jorge and Toffee truly made me part of their family, so much so that I even met Jorge’s family for dinner during the Easter holiday or "Semana Santa", as it’s referred to in Spain.
When we arrived at dinner, I sat in the middle of the table with Jorge and his parents. Among us were his brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, cousins and more.
I clicked so well with his family, that after Semana Santa, his mom invited me into her home. She taught me how to make croquettes, a Spanish dish made of milk, flour, bread crumbs and Jamón.
Being invited into Jorge’s mothers home and learning to make this dish was exciting for so many reasons. I was thrilled when, despite my fears, I realized that I knew enough Castilian Spanish to communicate with her effectively.
Next, I think about how CIEE gave me the opportunity to work an internship as one of my classes. This was beneficial to me since I want to teach Spanish to high schoolers one day.
For my internship, I was able to teach English to government officials and college students. CIEE helped me partner with the local university, La Universidad de Carlos III (UC3M). My time at UC3M was the most influential experience for me because I gained real-world experience teaching English as a foreign language, to Spaniards while using their skills to also better my Spanish dialects.
How many people can say that they had the opportunity to teach Spanish to other college students, let alone government officials?
CIEE collaborated with my home university to help me select the courses that were equivalent to those I needed to take in order to graduate. This was a benefit to me because there were some classes only offered once every three semesters at my home university.
Going abroad allowed me to take the equivalent classes that otherwise would not have been offered to me. I was able to choose classes and an internship that counted towards my degree and allowed me to graduate on time.
Lastly, I can’t forget about what really made the trip spectacular — traveling! CIEE provided different trips and activities for us. With the Open Campus program, we went to Seville, Lisbon, and a region of Spain called Extremadura. Each trip and activity offered was different and unique.
In Seville, I learned about the rich culture by attending a flamenco show. I was touched when a little boy who was no more than eight, got up and started dancing with the dancer, whom I suspect to be his dad. In Seville, I explored a cathedral that holds the remains of Christopher Columbus. There is a difference between learning about something and then actually seeing it in real life! I felt this as I stood in this cathedral.
My second block excursion was to Lisbon, Portugal. Being in a different country proved to be difficult primarily because the Lisboetas spoke a different language. I found that my knowledge of Spanish was extremely helpful since the locals understood Spanish better than English and their Portuguese reminded me of the Spanish language.
In my last block, we went to Extremadura. While in Extremadura, we had a planned activity to go kayaking with both CIEE staff and students. The guide had instructed the students to do crazy tasks like standing up on the kayak. Contrary to what I had expected, no one fell in the water.
On the weekends, I was able to travel independently with friends as well. My travels included multiple parts of Spain, France, Germany, Hungary, Greece and Rome. Although my bank account may not agree with me, it was totally worth it!
It’s hard to fathom the amazement of being in Europe (and especially Spain) until you’re there. I am so grateful that I was able to meet the incredible locals and participate in cultural activities when I was abroad with CIEE.
Written by Zachary Z. from Shippensburg University of Pennslyvania.