This is pretty much ridiculously overdue. Also, it is awesome. My sister moved to Spain for a year to teach English to elementary school children (primary school for any Europeans out there) before starting medical school, and as you can clearly see, is doing some amazing things. So, if you have any remote interest in living abroad, travel, Spain, Europe, and post-grad opportunities, read on...
First off, why teaching? Why not a semester abroad with your university?
Well, I always knew a semester abroad with my University just wasn't what I wanted. First of all, where I went to school, it was actually pretty expensive to study abroad. Also, they didn't have many class options for what I studied in college (biology). And most importantly, I had heard from friends who studied abroad themselves that what happens is you tend to spend most of your time around your fellow Americans who are also studying abroad and end up: a) not learning much of the language and b) not getting a real cultural experience.
So, for all of these reasons I sought out a program that would allow me to be in more control of my experience abroad. I knew I wanted to be in a Spanish-speaking country to better my Spanish, and of course teaching is the best (and one of the only) ways to make money abroad with only a bachelor's degree and no work experience. I found this program called 'Auxiliares de Conversacion' in Spain-a program where you are a language assistant who is placed in a school and are basically the resident 'native expert' in the english classes for normally 12 hours a week. I applied to the program, was placed in a school, and that's pretty much how I ended up teaching!
How did you go about finding the program you decided to teach with?
I first heard of the program from a friend in my sophomore year of college. It intrigued me, so I looked more into it and asked around to people who have done it before. It seemed a little questionable, but the more research i did, the more my confidence in the program grew. After stalking blogs from people who had done the program in the past, talking to a number of friends of friends who were in the program, and looking at the official program website, I finally decided this was how I wanted to spend my year living abroad.
What was the application process like?
In one word...complicated. The application was all in Spanish and was pretty hard to follow. There is an application guide in english which certainly helped, but it was still tricky. But at the end of the day, there weren't actually too many components to the application. There was a general application section, a short letter of intent, a letter of recommendation, and some documents that need to be uploaded. I'd say the much harder part was after being accepted, working on getting my visa to live in Spain-now that was a convoluted process (but also totally doable).
Tell us a little about the region your post is in :)
I was placed in La Rioja, a small community in Northern Spain that no one has ever heard of (unless they know of the wine). It's filled with miles of beautiful fields of vineyards, one large capital city, and many smaller pueblos (towns or villages-one in which I live). It's really a hidden gem of Spain. It has amazing food, unbelievable wine, beautiful views, and great access to the rest of northern Spain.
What surprised you about Spanish culture?
I think the biggest surprise was the difference in eating habits. Meals are completely different here. Most people eat a tiny breakfast, a huge, late lunch, and a light, late dinner. Now, this difference may sound like not such a big deal, but it really has made a difference in my lifestyle. Due to my work schedule I've been forced to change my eating habits to this later schedule, and it's been a weird adjustment. I eat lunch around 2 PM and dinner at 10 PM sometimes, which is just crazy. It's not a change I love but it's definitely a part of the full cultural experience.
Peter and I LOVED the food when we first came to visit- La Rioja is well known for for it's wine and 'pinchas,' isn't it?
Yes, it is! The wine here is amazing (not to mention much cheaper than anywhere else). And we also have pinchos, which is a small amount of food, prepared normally on top of a slice of bread. Pinchos can be anything from shrimp to chicken to some famous Spanish sausage. The norm is to go out for some pinchos and have a glass of wine or some beer with each one and of course catch up with friends.
Has it been difficult to make friends, either with local Spanish or other teaching assistants?
Fortunately, no, in fact it's been really easy. It was certainly facilitated by the fact that I live with two awesome Spanish girls. And then, the community of fellow teaching assistants tends to hang out together naturally since we're all working the same job. It really worked out for me in that there's a big group that is a mix of spaniards and teaching assistants from all over (US, Canada, France) that hangs out together. It's a really fun mix of people and we usually end up meeting for Thursday nights at the local Irish pub (I know, it sounds strange, being in a small Spanish town and going to an Irish pub). But it's a really great group and a really great town to live in-I really lucked out with my experience this year!
What is a typical day of teaching like for you?
I usually wake up around 8 am to be ready for my first class at 9 am. I walk to one of the schools I work at and work through 2 or 3 hours of classes. I'm always with another 'main' teacher and do different activities based on who I'm paired with (and also depending on the day). Some teachers will have me read a story to the kids and ask them questions, some will have me give a presentation on an aspect of US culture, and some will just have me help with pronunciation and going over homework assignments. It really just depends on the teacher, the age group, and the day. Because of this, every day is different and every class is different.
After that I have a 2 hour lunch break and usually return for a few hours of class in the afternoon. I also do a few private classes here and there that fill up my schedule.
I actually have a three day weekend, which is awesome! I don't have classes on Friday, and of course on Saturday and Sunday. So, I try to travel as much as I can. I either stay here and Calahorra and go on a day-trip with friends or I plan ahead and travel to somewhere a bit farther and spend the night. There's so much to see in Northern Spain, so my focus is to see as much of the surrounding area as I can. And I'm hoping to visit other parts of Spain, like the south, if I get the chance. Sometimes we get long weekends, called Puentes, and I try to travel farther, to other parts of Europe. The last Puente we had was in December and I travelled to Munich, Germany and Salzburg, Austria for the Christmas Markets. But of course, like I mentioned before, on normal weekends I try to keep the travels to Spain!
Have you done much traveling around Spain yet? any favorite towns or moments?
I have travelled a little around Spain, but not as much as I want to. I've mostly explored other pueblos of La Rioja and I've been to Madrid, Zaragoza (in Aragon) as well as the Pyrenees of Spain in Huesca, Aragon. But there's so much more to see. As much as it saddens me, I don't think I'll even come close to seeing all I want to in Spain by the time I finish my year here. But that just gives me an excuse to come back in the future ;)
As far as favorite towns, I really love the pueblo of Haro in La Rioja. This pueblo has many bodegas, or vineyards, with the best wine La Rioja has to offer. I've been twice now and went on tours of some bodegas followed by wine samplings. Both times I've visited have been with friends and we had a great day filled with excellent food and wine.
What are some challenges you wish you'd been aware of before heading over for a year abroad?
There haven't been any major challenges I've experienced (Thank God). And actually, although there are a few small things that are good to be aware of before a year abroad, I was actually warned about most of them before leaving. I joined a Facebook group of people from this program, and many veterans gave words of wisdom and warnings of potential challenges.
Some of the most helpful warnings were about the difficulty of finding your favourite products abroad. MOST things are easily found in supermarkets here in Spain, but there are a few products you may want to stock up on before you arrive, especially if you have a favourite brand or are extremely picky. Also, you should definitely move abroad with as much money saved up as you can because moving abroad is expensive. Between the flight, the apartment hunt, and paying for initial groceries and other costs before your first paycheck comes in-it's definitely best to come with a bit of a savings.
You traveled around a lot over the winter holiday- almost entirely alone- how did you budget and plan?
Honestly, my christmas travels were a bit of a splurge. The most expensive part was the plane tickets. But, besides that, everything else was really cheap. Staying in hostels is obviously the cheapest option, and you also meet a lot of new people that way. And in most of the cities I visited (Budapest, Vienna, and Prague) things like food and public transport were much cheaper than I expected them to be (especially Budapest and Prague-So.Cheap.) So in the end the cost wasn't horrible!
As far as the planning, that was a bit stressful, only because I did everything a bit at the last minute (or at least that's how it felt at the time). But everything was actually so easy once I decided which cities I wanted to visit. After I had the plane tickets to and from that part of central Europe, I just booked buses to get from one city to the next and then booked the hostels. And travelling alone actually made planning the trip a million times easier than if I had been travelling with other people because all of the decisions were made solely by me. There was no disagreeing arguing, or collaborating. I chose the hostels I wanted to stay in, the dates I wanted to travel, and the cities I wanted to visit without any hesitation, which made it all the easier.
Were you ever concerned about safety when you were traveling alone (spoiler alert: Mom definitely was!)? How did you stay safe?
Haha, yeah, I definitely got the feeling mom was not sleeping at night while I was on my travels (which is entirely understandable, I must admit). However, I always felt really safe when I was traveling, despite traveling alone. You obviously have to take all the normal precautions when traveling, like: keep all of your valuables in a secure spot, always in front of you, don't look too much like a tourist, and be careful where you're visiting late at night. Overall, I was actually visiting very safe cities and never felt threatened or unsafe. If you just use your common sense and trust your instincts, you can be absolutely fine traveling alone.
One moment I loved from my recent travels was New Years eve in Vienna. I met a group of people in my hostel and ended up celebrating midnight with new friends, live music, and a bottle of champagne at Vienna's town hall. Hours before I had know idea how I was going to celebrate,and then suddenly everything fell into place and I ended up having a great night! To me, that's what travel, especially solo travel is all about-the great moments you never expected. And I think they happen more often when you travel alone because it forces you to be much more open to meeting new people and also allows you to be flexible and open to new plans.
Any advice to other young people considering a year abroad?
I would say, if you can make it happen, then absolutely go for it. It can seem scary and intimidating, but it is so worth it. And while you can travel and live abroad at any point in your life, I really think the easiest time to do so is when you're young and are less likely to have other obligations tying you down. Take the plunge; I really don't think you'll regret it!
Not sure about you, but I'm just about ready to pack my bags and run away again. Special thanks to my sister for being cooler than me and sharing a little piece of her incredible experiences here. Hope they inspire someone to think beyond the typical college study abroad experience :)