Long before I became an expat in the UK, I studied abroad in Alicante, Spain, through an American program called CIEE.
While it is a massive investment of time and money, it is worth every penny. Here are my 5 reasons why!
1. You will meet people you’d never have had the chance to meet back home.
CIEE is an American study abroad program. All the students were from various universities in the US. Some were from Penn State, others from Iowa, and a few others from elsewhere, including my alma mater, University of Colorado. By some chance/fate, we were brought together for one of the best semesters of our lives.
I remember our orientation week. One of our first lessons was to learn how to give each other “dos besos” or “two kisses”. In Spain, it is customary to greet someone with a kiss on each cheek. We, awkward Americans, could not keep straight faces while leaning in to give each other the proper Spanish greeting. It was so uncustomary to be in each other’s personal space like that! However, because of our awkward first few moments, some of us got to know one another on deeper levels. While not everyone left best friends, we have made some friends through this group that will last a life time. I still keep in touch with one of my friends from CIEE, even though we haven’t seen each other in years!
2. You will learn about another culture from the inside out.
Spain is one of the most culturally vibrant places I’ve ever visited. Everything, from the food to the traditions, is so rich and unique. One of the most interesting festivals that I got to see was “Las Fallas” of Valencia. The locals build these elaborate paper mâché figures, with political or religious messages. After leaving them on display for about a week, they burn them in a massive bonfire. The amount of elaborate detail that goes into these statues makes people question why on earth would anyone burn them. To me, it’s a reminder of how fleeting life is, and that all you build can be gone in a flash. We should take one out of the Spaniard’s book, and appreciate life while we are living it!
Is there anything more typical “Spanish” than Flamenco dancing? Well, one of my favorite memories was when we took a weekend trip to Granada. The first night there, we got to go to a cave house and had a special Flamenco dance put on for us. It was all so new and exciting – I had never seen Flamenco before this! The women were so strong and fierce and I was so jealous I couldn’t move like that. These memories formed a deep appreciation for Flamenco dance and music that endures with me now.
3. You will see places that will take your breath away.
In my first month studying abroad, we took a little trip to a village in the Valencia province called Guadalest. It was a very cold day. A rare thing happened: it started snowing lightly. When we were walking around, not a single villager was in sight. Everyone was in the house hiding from the snow and cold – for a southern Spaniard, this was very cold weather. We only saw people peering out of their windows at us. I’m sure that we, Americans, looked quite strange in our light jackets or just sweaters, but the cold didn’t bother us much. The trip was well worth it. Guadalest offers such a beautiful view of the mountains, and the quaint charm of a Spanish village.
Sometimes, there is nothing that can capture what you witness. Not photos nor words can express the marvel of architecture that is La Alhambra, Granada. My neck hurt from straining it. I was so busy staring at all the ceilings and the intricate arabic script. The decor blows my mind. All of this was handmade and done with such care. The gardens were an absolute delight. I cannot adequately express how grateful I was to see this place.
4. You will find the word “family” is not limited to biology.
I highly recommend living with a local family. The family I lived with made a lasting impact on my life. I still regularly talk to my “madre” and even went to my Spanish brother’s wedding last fall. The love I feel for them is similar to what I feel for my own family. You want to be in their lives and they want to be in yours.
A fond memory I have of my Spanish family is that they would take me to their country house every Sunday, where there was absolutely no wifi or cell phone reception. I would have freshly squeezed orange juice (straight from the orange trees) and eat delicious homemade paella. After eating, we would sit all together outside under the shade of a tree and talk for hours. Some of the sweetest memories I have of Spain include me chasing the niñas around the garden. I could play with them forever, and in those moments, you forget you are any different than them; you forget you are an adult.
5. The things you see and learn will stay with you for a lifetime.
I cannot fully express just how impactful studying abroad was for me. Spain shaped me in a way that nothing else in the world could. I realized how adventurous I was. I studied hard, and partied harder. I developed a palate for fine wine (or perhaps, more accurately, boxed wine). I lived on the beach every opportunity I could get. A castle was in my backyard. My Spanish improved significantly, and I took home a slight lisp, and many colloquial Spanish words. I learned the cheapest cocktails were at Brujas in the Barrio and how to navigate the Ryanair webpage.
Not only did I become more independent, confident and resourceful, but the friendships, experiences and tender moments I had still hold a special place in my heart. Was it worth it? Hell yes.