When I first began my course at CIEE, I hadn't even heard of Murcia, nevermind the auxiliary program there. If you're not familiar, the Spanish Ministry of Education is working with America (and several other countries) on a program which places an English-speaking, non-Spanish resident in one or more schools as what they call a "cultural assistant" (auxiliar de conversación). In this case, CIEE works to provide its students with a placement in Murcia, a region in southeastern Spain. Before now, I had never even traveled outside of North America, let alone across the Atlantic; I'd never even had a passport. So how did I get from living in small town Wisconsin to teaching at two different schools in the beautiful coastal city of Cartagena?
Getting my TEFL certificate
Chances are, if you're reading this, you're already aware of the program basics, but in early 2018 when I was taking my course, CIEE hadn't yet implemented its agreement with the Region of Murcia. After several months of hard work, I was just about to complete my certification with distinction, and I was actually reached out to by one of the coordinators who suggested I might be a good fit for the auxiliary program. As I had already paid for my course, the placement was at no cost to me. Sounds too good to be true, right?
Well, it might be.
I was informed right up front that this was what they called a "hands-off" program. That is to say, unlike their other placements in Andalucía or Madrid, you don't have any pre-departure or in-country assistance. Of course, you also don't have the added cost those programs require. You are more or less paired with the Region of Murcia and they handle the rest; it's up to you to cover your flight, living arrangements, and anything else you might need in order to live in Spain for a year. As it turns out, this worked out perfectly for me. Not only could I avoid the added expenses, but I could be in full control of everything I did, with the exception of the schools I was placed in.
This is not for everyone. If the thought of being thrown into the deep end and having to independently get yourself to Spain intimidates you, then the other amazing programs CIEE offers might be a better fit. But if you're like me, and the challenge of having that level of independence excites you, then hopefully I can provide you with the information you need to make it feel a little less daunting. That being said...
Documentation, documentation, and more documentation
One of the first things anyone will tell you about moving to Spain is that the entire country is a bureaucratic nightmare. What they don't tell you is that it starts before you even get there.
I didn't have a passport or a Spanish visa, so my first task was to get those things taken care of or I wouldn't be able to leave the country. In order to do that, I needed to get a new birth certificate and social security card (long story short: keep track of your documents if you move a lot). This began what I like to call the "summer of unfortunate events". Before I even officially applied for the Murcia program, I needed a passport to include in the application, which involved contacting the program coordinators and apologetically asking for an exception while sheepishly rubbing the back of my neck. Take my advice: don't do this. Get your passport before you apply and save yourself the hassle.
Of course, getting a Spanish visa was even more frustrating. Not only did it require getting my fingerprints taken, requesting a government background check, sending said background check out to get an apostille, then sending those documents to a translation service to get them translated and notarized, getting a certificate of good health (and included Spanish translation) signed and stamped by my doctor, and compiling all of those papers together along with a visa application (and copying them...twice) but I also had to drive more than six hours to Chicago for an appointment with the Spanish consulate. This all took until the beginning of September, and by then I had already bought a (non-refundable) plane ticket, so I was hoping and praying that there were no problems with my visa application and--heaven forbid--I would have to do it all over again.
The good thing is, I received my visa after only two weeks (a good two weeks shorter than was estimated), which gave me a couple of weeks to finally breathe and stop stressing. Well, as much as I could do.
My advice? Get started on your paperwork right away. Like an idiot I didn't read the fine print for the visa process and started way too late to be in any way rational. It's a long, arduous process that, while being completely worth it in the end, will not only make you question your sanity at the sheer level of redundancy (and ask if any of the people in charge have ever tried to get one of these things themselves) but your entire reason for doing it in the first place. Don't get lost in the mountain of paperwork you will no doubt find yourself in. There will be plenty of time for that once you actually get to Spain.
Getting acquainted with Spanish
By some miracle, the actual traveling process went surprisingly smoothly. Each flight was on time, each security checkpoint a breeze, and none of my luggage got lost in the process. I even managed to get a full night's sleep on the first flight! And then, I hop off the plane and immediately hear: SoyJaviersutaxistapuedoayudartecontusmaletas?
The eight years of Spanish I took in high school completely wiped themselves from my memory in the blink of an eye, leaving me staring completely dumbfounded until he laughed and asked, ¿Inglés?
I thought that with a few days of refreshing on my Duolingo app I'd be set. I thought wrong. Do you remember in class when you would hear one of your classmates struggle with what you thought was an obvious question, and then you were asked one and suddenly you felt like a deer in the headlights? That will be your entire experience in Spain if you don't brush up on your Spanish.
Practice, practice, practice. If you think you know it, practice it anyway. One of the rules of life is that your memory will fail you at the worst time possible, leaving you scrambling to try and remember how you say "thank you" when all your brain is coming up with is "dos elefantes se balanceaban..." It's better to embarrass yourself in the privacy of your room narrating your life like some Spanish detective than to a waiter at a restaurant or, heaven forbid, in the slowest elevator in Spain with five other people (true story).
Setting up in España
Now, just to warn you, this is a part not everyone might agree on. When I was first starting this process, there were many guides that said not to find an apartment before you leave, but I think, like with anything, if you're careful you'll be just fine. My biggest fear was arriving and not having anywhere to go, and so I started looking fairly early on. The area of Cartagena where my schools are located is in a rather small suburb called La Palma, and so there was next to nothing available, but in the city center there was plenty. I ended up renting a room, or habitación, as opposed to my own apartment (piso). There were several reasons I did this, but mainly the cost, the ease, and the accessibility. Take all of these into consideration when finding a place to live.
I used the website Idealista to find my room, which is right on the Paseo Alfonso XIII, a major road in the city. For the ease of access I ended up paying a little extra, 290 € a month, but you can find rooms for around 150 € or so (depending on where you live). A typical habitación might include a twin bed, a small desk, and a wardrobe. They might have a private baño or you might have to share with a few roommates. These sort of rental agreements typically cater to university students, so expect to live with several other twenty-somethings, but this may vary depending on the location. I share my apartment with five college guys, all of them foreigners (like me!).
If you're going to get an apartment or room before you arrive, make sure you apply at the right time. Too early and everyone will be on gone (Spain more or less shuts down in August as everyone is on vacation), too late and you might end up commuting 2 hours a day to work! As I arrived on the 25th of September, I found an habitación around the first week of September, but your mileage may vary on this one. It can't hurt to start looking early, but as Spain is a pretty popular destination for expats and vacationers, you'll probably see rooms come and go frequently.
Something to note: if you're going to rent your own piso, be aware that the prices may change exorbitantly from one month to the next, especially during the summer, as these are often holiday homes. When I say exorbitantly, I mean a difference of over 500 € in some cases!
Just a few more things
All that being said, CIEE's Murcia program is an amazing opportunity for those willing to put in the work. It takes a little bit of money (several hundred dollars for the entire passport and visa process, anywhere from $500-1500 for a plane ticket) and a lot of patience, but if you dedicate yourself (and your summer) to getting here, then you will. Trust me, if I can do it, then you absolutely can. With that, join me in my next article as I tell you about the actual teaching job and what it means to be an auxiliar de conversación.