This is a letter that I wrote as an assignment to incoming students who will also be studying abroad here in Valencia, Spain. It was a good way to reflect on my experience and see how much I had grown. In the midst of writing I found myself for the first time putting words to more profound things that I had never reflected on before as I was writing and the words were just flowing. Here is the result which is a good recap of my time here.
Dear incoming student,
You are coming to study in Valencia Spain and you are going to have the time of your life! If you do it right it will feel like a vacation more than studying. It will be hard at times and you will get frustrated but overall it will be an amazing experience. Here are some things I learned through my experience and would like to pass on.
Let’s start with preparation for the trip. When packing layers is key. The weather can vary from super-hot to something like a cool fall day, so just be prepared for that by having tank tops and sweaters try to bring pieces that are versatile and can make various outfits. When you arrive you may think it is really warm here yet you will be seeing Spaniards with jackets and scarfs on so just know that you may look like a foreigner if you are in shorts and sandals all the time.
Although you will be tired upon arrival don’t just stay home and sleep. The first days and weeks are crucial for making friends and getting to know the culture. At first you may not understand anything, language or culture. Give it a week or two and everything will be fine. You’ll be surprised on how fast you pick up on things. The classes may be a little rough at first because you have to pay FULL attention to be able to understand what the teacher is saying and even then you might not understand but its ok they are patient and understanding. The classes are really small and personal so you will be forced to participate but in that you learn so much more. As for homework there is very little which allows for a lot of free time, but take advantage of that in the right ways, not just by laying around.
I encourage you to make friends quickly. Obviously you’ll have people in your classes. Take advantage of those relationships because you see each other almost every day and they can end up being great lifelong friends. But they are other so Americans so get out there and meet new people and get to know other cultures too! A good way to do this is through church, GBU, and intercambio. Say yes to every situation that arises (if it isn’t immoral illegal or harmful) I know you introverts would prefer to stay home but no get out there and experience Spain. You can do things alone too, like go to the beach or just chill in the river. Remember that you could have stayed in the US but now you are or will be in Spain, Europe, across an ocean… so take advantage of it!
I also encourage you to get involved. Don’t look at this experience as a foreigner that is only here for a short time. Make an effort to change to a native mindset although it may be hard when you know you’re leaving in a few short months. Invest in the people around you. You may attend a church but rather than just attending on Sundays, go to bibles studies and prayer meeting and even serve in some area. These are the best ways to build really strong relationships and more so that are with other Christians. This principle of getting involved can be applied in other areas of your experience too.
This may be you first time with almost total freedom out in the real world. This comes with a lot of unforeseen challenges that you would never expect. Specifically I am going to talk about the spiritual challenges. Growing up in a Christian family, predominantly Christian community, and then Cedarville I have been surrounded by Christians my whole life so that naturally helped my faith. Upon arrival here that was not the case and although I went to church and served and was involved in GBU and other things but my faith felt weak. I felt like I wasn’t that close to the Lord because I wasn’t surrounded by people proclaiming his name constantly. Over time I learned that it is just a different realization of carrying out my faith in a new atmosphere and that even when I am not surrounded by Christians I need to be that person. For this reason I urge you to surround yourself with as many as Christians a possible and form deep relationships with them. I suggest with another student from Cedarville, as you come from the same place and may experience the same things, you can share in your struggles, help each other and pray for each other during your time here and have weekly coffee dates to have some real intimate time. Another plus of this is that when you go back to school you can still have this strong relationship have an automatic friend upon returning and still maintain that friendships as you share in the same experiences of your time in Spain and re adjusting to American culture. But still form this relationship on Spanish!!!! Some cafes I suggest are Leopold, pan pan or panaria, and CONTE tea house. These are good places for coffee dates and to study if you need a change of atmosphere.
One of the most important things is that you speak Spanish ALL the time. Between the other students at school, with other friends that may be Erasmus or people that want to practice English it might be difficult but remember that you are in Spain to learn and the hardest part is practice speaking. So be bold and insist speaking in Spanish all the time.
For me Spain was a big change as I am from a small town and Cedarville is small so it was my first time living in a city. Lucky for me I like cities so it was a lot of fun to run free in a city, living there, and getting to know it. As for transportation in the city there is metro, bus, and Valenbisi. Personally I liked the bike option more because it was more economical (30 euro for a year subscription) whereas the bus and metro you can recharge 10 trips at a time which usually comes out to around 10 euro. So for me bike was worthwhile. There are bike lanes all over the city so you will rarely have to ride along with traffic so not much to be scared about there. You will use the bus or metro at some point so just go to one of the many tobacco shops and ask for a metro and bus card and you pay for the first round of trips. You can go online and register that card and then also sign up for the bike system with that card. It is all super convenient. And just to remember to account for travel time when trying to get places. There are apps that can help telling you which lines to take to get to you destination and how long it will take.
Once again… YOU ARE IN EUROPE take advantage of traveling to other countries that are close. If it may be a financial issue think ahead and save 60 buck and look at flight way ahead of time and you can get really good deals. I flew with Ryanair numerous time and had nothing but good experiences although you may hear some bad things about them. Yes you can only bring one small bag and a purse but you’ve already learned how to pack light by coming to Spain for a semester so a few days in a backpack shouldn’t be hard. Also just print your ticket beforehand and you’ll be fine. If you are traveling within Spain you can use train or bus. Bus is usually cheaper but the duration of the trip is longer so if you’re savvy sometimes you can find trains for really cheap too. Don’t be scared to ask for help organizing trips or suggestions of things to see and travel options. You have people at the institute, your host family and other friends who are always happy to help.
Another tip to save yourself some stressful situations. Make sure your schedule is right before coming and make sure you and Ms. Dickey are on the same page because otherwise you transcript could say classes that you didn’t even take and then it could get really complicated to change. So just make sure all of that is in line before coming.
Now for things with your host family. You may rarely be home because you have a lot going on outside of the house or you may hang with the family because you don’t have much going on. They are both good options. There will be situations where you will need a bocadillo for lunch away from home so just ask your family for that and there that is. But as for other meals that you will be eating away from home just make sure to keep your family informed of if you will be arriving late of a meal or just won’t be there at all. They care about you and may get worried when you don’t come home so just save them a heart attack. Communication is key, as always. They aren’t you parents controlling you so it’s not like you need permission but just let them know. Better safe than sorry. Another thing is that you may have to show less than normal because you can’t be using so much water so just be prepared for that. Make your host family like real family and the home too. Help around the house when possible just to be nice.
The meal schedule in Spain is different. Breakfast is at the normal time but they don’t eat a big breakfast just a coffee and tostadas. Later around 10-11 there is almuerzo, which is the mid-morning snack, which typically consists of a small bocadillo or some small snack. Lunch is around 2 and then after that is siesta, which isn’t necessarily a nap but just a time to relax, then around 5:30 is marina , afternoon snack, then dinner around 9 but don’t be surprised if it’s even later.
As for “night life” if you’re not the type of person that likes to stay out late that’s fine. (Although late for Spaniards is 6 AM) You can still go to bars and get a coke or something and if you want to stay out later the pubs stay open until 3:30-4 and then there are discotecas after that until 7AM. The typical a Spaniard would stay out all night and not return home until the next morning.
I also suggest to make a list of things you want to do before you leave Spain to make sure you experience all of the typical things. For me that was a soccer game in the mestalla since I passed it every day it was very necessary. Also going up in Torres de Serrano, going to mass in the cathedral, the beach, trying horchata, and eating paella. It’s ok to start out as a tourist seeing all the important things but also remember to integrate into the life of a Valencian.
As for the phone situation you can get an international plan from your normal carrier, get a Spanish sim card and buy a Spanish pay as you go plan (I suggest Orange – Ballena), or just stick with what you have and live off Wi-Fi. As for me I got a Spanish phone and sim, since my phone is locked by the carrier, and did the pay as you go option. That worked really well for me and I recommend this method. Along the technology lines. Everyone uses WhatsApp here no messenger or normal texting so make sure to get that. Also a lot of cafes have Wi-Fi so you can just much of that if you don’t end up getting a phone plan. But I really do suggest taking it light on social media and just experiencing things not being stuck to the internet all the time.
And finally… keep in touch with family and friends in the US because you will be going back to them so don’t pretend that they don’t exist. But also I suggest minimal contact. If you are constantly talking to people from there, first of all it will be in English and second you won’t have anything to tell them when you arrive home. So just have a chat every once in a while to keep all parties happy.
Just remember keep a good balance between social life and school and enjoy your experience.