How College and my Study Abroad Program Prepared me for a Life in Spain

Emails form part of my daily routine, and many who write are travelers looking for a great place to eat or see flamenco, asking about what to miss and what can’t be missed, and seeking information on where to stay in Seville or how to get around.

As my blog readership grew and moved into an expat blog, I began to get more and more inquiries about moving to Spain, which prompted me to co-found COMO Consulting Spain

On my first trip to Europe in 2001, at age 15

Claire’s recent email stood out. At 17, she’s already dreaming of moving abroad once she finishes school. When I was 17, I’d already traveled to Europe twice and was hooked on the idea that I’d study abroad. The more I think about it, the more a life overseas made sense, thanks to the decisions I made in college and what seems to be a four-year beeline straight towards my final destination.

With her permission, I’m including a snippet of our conversation, as well as a longer explanation of how I got to Seville in the first place:

Claire D. writes:

I just started reading your blog a few days ago and I’m already hooked. I’m seventeen and ever since I visited last summer, I’ve been in love with the idea of living in Europe. Unfortunately I don’t know anybody else who has the same dream as me so I’ve been searching for information and advice from people who have experienced living abroad, which is how I found your blog. I feel like I have so many questions for you but I’ll start with your study abroad program.

I’ll be starting university here in Canada in September and I’m thinking about majoring in Global Studies. I know you mentioned that you studied abroad during your college education as well. I was wondering what you majored in and if it was related in any way to your studies of Spanish language in Spain.

I knew what I wanted to study from the time I was 12. My elementary school had a TV lab, and each sixth grade class got to produce a morning news program. My first assignment was interviewing other students about fire safety on the playground. As a kid with countless interests, being in a cubicle would NEVER be for me.
 
College
At the University of Iowa, I went into journalism, but we were forced to pick another major or concentration. Most of my peers chose Poli Sci or English. The reason I chose International Studies as my second major was because it was a DIY program, so all I had to do was argue my way into classes, prove that they had something to do with international studies, and I could earn credits towards my degree.
 
 
Christi and I lived with the same host family in Spain!
 
I enrolled in courses like Paris and the Art of Urban Life, Beginner French, Comparative Global Media and Intercultural Narrative Journalism. I have always loved travel, languages and media, so a concentration in international communication was a great fit for me, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed my coursework. I also chose to minor in Spanish because it was my favorite subject in high school.
 
Little did I know that choosing to minor because, hey! I’m an overachiever, would actually set a course for the rest of my life. My mom studied in Rome during college, and all but demanded I do the same (she did not, however, ask this of my little sister). Between dozens of cities and scores of program choices, I balked and did the simplest one: a six-week summer program in Valladolid, Spain, operated and accredited by the state of Iowa. A large contributing factor was the $1000 that went towards my tuition, too.
 
Study Abroad
I know virtually nothing about Valladolid, a former capital about two hours northwest of Madrid, and my first impression was not great: a hazy day and a kid peeing on the side of the road. As our program director, Carolina, called off names and assigned my classmates to host families, I grew really nervous.
 
 
With Aurora, my host sister, in Valladolid
 
Aurora lived in the Rondilla neighborhood of Valladolid in an ático. She was in her mid 30s – a far cry from the majority of señoras who were widows and creeping up on the tercera edad. Her mother of the same name came each day to make our beds, cook for us and wash our clothes. From the very start, young Aurora welcomed us into her home and her circle of friends, inviting me and my roommate out for drinks or movies, and making sure we were exposed to as much castellano as possible.
 
If you’re going to study abroad, do so with a host family. You’ll have someone to give you an introduction to Spanish life, cuisine and culture. My experience would have been much different if I’d lived with other Americans, and I still visit my host family as often as I can.
 
 
I took classes in Spanish Literature and Culture in Valladolid
 
When looking for a study abroad program, I’d suggest that you take into account more than just cost and location. Schools and programs are now offering internships, specialty courses and the ability to take class at universities with native university students. If your language skills are strong, give yourself that challenge. I also chose to study somewhere that was not a study abroad mecca – there were less than 40 Americans in Valladolid that  summer, so I learned far more in six weeks than I expected to! Consider going somewhere besides Granada or Barcelona, like Santander, Alicante or Murcia.
 
As soon as I was off the plane at O’Hate (wrote that accidentally, and it stays), I announced that I would be moving abroad as soon as I finished school in 2007.
 
Back to College
Once back in Iowa City, I dove back into coursework. I worked for the Daily Iowan, continued taking Spanish courses, had a successful summer internship at WBBM Chicago that could have turned into a job…but I dreamed of Spain.
 
My coursework became more and more focused on international communication and moving abroad, and my trips to the study abroad office were frequent.  At this point in time, there were very few gap year programs, and I had two choices: teach abroad or work on a holiday visa.
 
 
I also focused on my college football obsession and grilling brats on Saturday mornings.
 
My decision to teach in Spain was two-fold: I was nervous about the prospect of living abroad, and I knew I wasn’t done with Spain once I finished my study abroad program. I’m glad I had a primer before moving here after college – I may have been confused by Andalusian Spanish, but at least I was aware that things close midday! 
 
I received the email that I’d been accepted to teach English in Andalusia just a few days before graduating in May 2007. Then came the tailspin to get a visa, book flights, look for a place to live in Seville, figure out what the hell I was thinking when I applied to TEACH since I had an aversion to kids, and wondering if Spain was really worth all of the hassle.
 
Life In Spain
 
But I went anyway, touching down in the land of sunshine and siestas (and this blog’s namesake) on September 13th, 2007.
 
 
My parents have supported me since coming to Spain, even though we’re thousands of miles away from one another.
 
If I may say it, there’s a huge difference between living abroad alone when you’re still in your late teens as opposed to living there after you’ve graduated. Living abroad has its own set of what ifs, of doubts, of struggles, and when you’re younger (that is, if you’re a basket case like I was!), everything seems a little bit tougher. When I arrived in Seville, I lived with a 19-year-old girl from Germany who really struggled to be away from home, and ended up leaving soon after settling in. I highly suggest you consider studying abroad anywhere to get a taste of what to expect, whether in an English-speaking country or even in Spain. 
 
To be honest, adjustment was really hard at first. Now that I’ve lived here for nearly seven years, I feel at home and well-adjusted. There are so many factors that go into getting used to life elsewhere: language, customs, food, timetables, religion. I came ready for culture shock and loneliness, and I was SO lonely in Spain for about six weeks, but never turned down any invitation to do something or go out, whether from a coworker or from another expat. I have my sorority background to thank for that, and yet another reason why college really did its job in setting me up for adulthood.
 
 
Back to the studies. Here in Spain, I teach and direct an English academy in addition to freelance writing and translating, but think that my studies ultimately led me to this life abroad. Even though I’m not working with both feet in the journalism bucket, I honed my communication skills in a lot of other ways. Global studies is fascinating, and if you’re interested in higher education, should lend well to tons of cool masters programs in development, international communication or business, or even immigration law (that’s the next master’s I’d love to tackle!).
 
My Advice
Be open to all of the options and opportunities. Follow your heart. Take challenging coursework. Apply for internships abroad. Volunteer. Ask questions. Make friends with your professors and study abroad staff. Research. Take a leap of faith, and remember that you will make mistakes, have doubts and want to give it all up for the comfortable, for what you know, for a relationship or for something better (and perhaps it is).
 
You’ll probably have critics. My grandma has given me Catholic guilt all of my life, and is convinced I’m living abroad to torture her. I can say that my parents are now OK with my decision to stay in Spain and continue the life I’ve made for myself here, and they have supported me throughout – through break ups, bad jobs, strep throat, uncertainty and all of the lame stuff that being an adult (abroad or not) can bring.
 
 
Blending in…kind of…at the Feria de El Puerto in 2010
 
I do still dream of moving cities or even countries. The Novio is in the Spanish Air Force and occasionally has opportunities to go elsewhere. Even though I’m settled and happy in Seville, I’d love to go back to square one and start all over again – and write about it!
 
Do you have any questions about life abroad, teaching overseas, or Seville? Email me at hola@comoconsultingspain.com!
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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. Fun to see these photos of you when you were just a wee one! Too cute.
    The Spain Scoop recently posted..Seville: Nice to Meet You!My Profile

  2. I love this, Cat! My Mom told me from a very early age that I MUST study abroad during college. She studied in Denmark and told me studying abroad was the one thing I had to do during college. Like you, she hasn’t forced this on my brother. As I’m preparing to move to Spain in September, I truly believe that my study abroad experience in college (Granada 2010) has prepared me well to move back. It can be a scary process, but like you said, “Be open to all of the options and opportunities. Follow your heart.” You cannot go wrong if you do these things, and for me, I certainly do not want to ever regret not going back to Spain and living abroad. Thank you, Cat, and good luck, Claire!
    Mike of Mapless Mike recently posted..Thoughts of a Prospective Auxiliar de ConversaciónMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      You’ll do great!! Knowing a bit about Spain and its culture and customs will give you a leg up, believe me!

  3. I luckily didn’t get the family guilt thing about being far away from home, as my parents left England for California, taking the beloved first grandchild away with them too (AKA me at an insufferably adorable age). That must be tough to deal with.

    I’m actually in Spain partly because of what a bad time I had studying abroad. I was so stubborn I had to try it again to make sure I could do it, and that’s a quality that also helps me get through the not-so-nice parts of living abroad. Warning to future expats: there are lots!

    And on study abroad housing situations…living with a host family can be a shortcut to really learning about the culture, but if you’re stuck with a bad one like I was, it’s good to be prepared and know your alternatives for getting out if it sucks.

    Even having had an awful experience, I still think you should definitely take into account access to locals/native speakers or at the very least, people not from your country. Studying abroad as an American student and meeting nobody except other Americans is kind of a waste of time, honestly. It’s a really entertaining waste of time, but you could have the same cultural experience back home, just with a less exciting backdrop. Part of the fun of living/studying abroad is really getting to know all the quirks of another culture and country. It’s scary, but go for it!
    Jessica (Barcelona Blonde) recently posted..I’m Officially a Barcelona Know-It-AllMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Yessss, making the effort to have interaction with Spanish people is really important. My program was small, so there weren’t a million people to meet, we had small excursions based on interests, and I didn’t party that much. I think I did my study abroad the way I wanted to do it, but I did wish I had gone for more time. That’s another reason why I wanted to come abroad and try and new area of Spain.

      It really comes down to just going in the first place!

  4. JORE says:

    As a mom of another Spanish smitten woman, your blogs aré reassuring. In days when I miss her, your words wrap around me like a soft fleece blanket and calm my uneasiness. Thank you for your deliciously detailed blogs. My list of NEED to visit sites grows longer and longer and longer…..

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Hey Mrs. D! I know your daughter loves it here, feels at home with Hermes’s family and is looking to expand her horizons! Seems like you raised her to be independent and driven – congratulations! Hope you meet you the next time you’re out!

  5. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Cat! It’s always cool to read how people got to Spain.
    Trevor Huxham recently posted..4 Things America Can Learn From SpainMy Profile

  6. amelie88 says:

    Study abroad is a tradition in my family too. In fact, without study abroad my sister and I probably would not exist. Both my sister and I studied abroad and I think neither of us regret our decision. We may not have met the loves of our lives like my mom did but we both learned so much from our experiences.
    amelie88 recently posted..Guest Post: After Korea: A Contemporary Education LessonMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      I have so many friends who met and fell in love while studying abroad – that would have been enough to make me want to go, too!

  7. Lynn Neagley says:

    Thank you! Can’t wait to share with my nieces and nephews! Sorry I did not pursue international studies long ago during my college years but you are never too old to realize your dreams!

    As a 50+ year old who finally made it back last year to study in Granada and Salamanca, I totally agree on living with families in smaller cities rather than the big cities. Now that I have familia to return to, I can’t wait to keep exploring Spain, especially Andalucia.

    Again, Muchas Gracias!

    • Cat Gaa says:

      My pleasure, Lynn! Encouragement goes a long way for young people, and I’m sure your nieces and nephews would appreciate your input. Like you, I consider both Castilla and Andalucía one of my homes.

  8. I was already enjoying your article when I got to the part about being from the University of Iowa :) During most of my study abroad time, I was finishing a law degree from UI. I just kept leaving over the summers to study in China, Japan and Korea. Long story short – Hello from Iowa City :P
    I also wanted to say, back in Undergrad I double majored in English/Writing and History: International Studies (1 class short of a minor in Spanish), and both of those were excellent in preparation for my interest in living abroad after college. My writing/presenting skills got me the job (and the internships) in Asia that I wanted. My International Studies degree taught me about adapting to foreign cultures, as well as how to connect and reach out to local residents. This prepared me to succeed once I did study abroad.

    One thing though that I think is particularly helpful in addition to going overseas is to take diverse international-focused courses. I pushed most of my upper-level college credits into history, government, law, business, language, and literature (my Int’l Studies degree was a mix-it up like yours). This meant that when I wanted to find a job, I had a pretty wide background to come from. Even though some classes weren’t as fun as others, it broadened what I had to offer.
    Between this diverse background and my study abroad time (a necessity), I’m now heading abroad as a college business/law professor in China.

    On a related note, the information you offer about living abroad and adapting abroad is particularly helpful for me right now. Thanks! <3
    DeceptivelyBlonde recently posted..Studying Abroad: A Résumé BuilderMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Hi there! Love meeting other Hawks, digitally or not! Great advice, as well. My studies were quite concentrated, but the flexibility in the program was a big plus. While all of my roommates were cramming for econ, I was using a Michellin Green Guide as a textbook (suckers!). One of my favorite classes within the J-School was about intercultural reporting. Check out the book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall down” about the Hmong people in California and Western medicine – it’s really good!

      I can’t seem to access your blog, and I’d love to have a look!

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