Making the choice to spend my junior year of college studying abroad in Spain changed my life for the better. From meeting friends that continue to be a part of my life to getting a firsthand experience of a culture I’ve grown to respect and love, I highly recommend taking a chance and living in Spain. It was through this decision that I began a journey of six years abroad that led to experiences that have changed the trajectory of my life.
As a California native who attended a California State University (CSU), I went through a program specifically for CSU students. If you’re considering studying abroad in Spain read on as I share all of the things I wish I’d known prior to my year abroad.
Choosing Your Study Abroad Program in Spain
Finding the right program is one of the most important steps in your study abroad experience. I went through the California State University Study Abroad Program (CSU IP). This program offers California State University students the ability to study abroad for a semester or one year—I chose a year—and has programs at three major universities in Spain: Universidad de Jaén, Universidad de Granada, and Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
The main difference between these programs is the amount of Spanish courses you’ll need to take before you apply. The Universidad de Jaén program is considered to be for beginners and there are no language prerequisites. The Universidad de Granada and Universidad Complutense de Madrid programs require the completion of four or more semesters or six or more quarters of Spanish courses with a B average in every class. I recommend thinking about your study abroad experience early on in your college career so you can make sure you’ve completed all prerequisites by the time you’re ready to apply.
There are a lot of other factors to consider when choosing the right study abroad program in Spain. Each of these cities—Jaén, Granada, and Madrid—are vastly different and therefore will provide you with a unique experience while living abroad in Spain. Compared to other European countries, the level of English use is lower in Spain. In smaller cities, such as Jaén—often referred to as a “pueblo” or town—most of the locals will have a beginner level understanding of English. In bigger cities, such as Granada and Madrid, English is more widely spoken. When learning a new language, the more immersion the better. If the locals don’t speak your native language, you’re far more likely to learn theirs. This is why I chose Jaén as my program.
Preparing to Study Abroad in Spain
After being accepted to the study abroad program in Jaén, Spain, one of the first things I needed to do was apply for my student visa. This can be a lengthy process and the Spanish consulate is very strict in their requirements. It’s crucial that you review the visa application thoroughly to ensure no mistakes are made. You can find the visa requirements on the Spanish consulate’s website. Once you’ve obtained your visa, the only other preparation that needs to be done before you jet off on your Spanish journey is packing.
What to Pack for Spain
If you’re doing a year-long program like I did, you’re most likely going to arrive in the summer. Spanish summers, especially in the south, are no joke—they are hot, hot, hot. Temperatures can reach well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and air conditioning is not a common household feature. Likewise, the winters can reach the low 50s. Make sure you pack clothes respective to each season as the weather can be extreme on both ends.
Studying abroad may be the first time you’re thousands of miles away from home. You may have moments of missing home but don’t worry, this is totally normal. Pack some things that remind you of home. I personally brought my teddy bear and photos of my friends and family to give me a little piece of home during my adventure. While these were things that my study abroad adviser informed me of, there were plenty of other packing list items I wish I had known about prior to my departure.
What I Wish I Packed for My Study Abroad Year
One of those things was a cell phone that works abroad. There are a few different ways you can go about this. You can pick up a pay-as-you-go phone once you arrive at any of the phone shops, or there are many American cell phone providers that have inexpensive rates for international use.
Another item I wished I’d brought was a weekender backpack. Look for a backpack that has hard sides to keep your clothes folded and that fits a majority of airline bag size requirements. Traveling between European countries is affordable and is how a lot of study abroad students spend their weekends. My friends and I were constantly planning weekend trips to different countries and the airlines that travel between them usually only allow one carry-on item—unless you want to pay a similar price for baggage as you did for your ticket.
Lastly, while there are many things you’ll want to have along, try to pack smart and as light as you can—you will accumulate more than you think.
Beginning Your Study Abroad Year in Jaén, Spain
You’ve arrived! Let the adventure begin. Because all of the students through the CSU IP program are from California, the program organizers have students on the same flight out of either LAX or SFO. So look out, because there’s a good chance you’ll see your future classmates or even roommates on your flight. Once you arrive, a bus will be waiting and you’ll be taken to Jaén where you’ll stay your first few nights in a hotel with your study abroad group. What makes the study abroad program in Jaén unique compared to other CSU IP programs is that you’ll spend your first month or so with a host family. After this month, you’ll have the option to either continue your year with the family or find an apartment with friends.
While I opted to live with a friend after my first month, the homestay experience was one of my favorite parts of the program. It allowed me to gain a true understanding of Spanish culture before jetting off on my own. I still keep in touch with my host family to this day and have even visited them since my study abroad year.
While living with my host family, I learned about Spanish siestas—an old tradition where the entire city shuts down mid-day to relax. And when I say the whole city shuts down, I mean it—especially in the south. When I first arrived in Jaén, all of the businesses were closed and there was not a single person walking the streets. I also learned about the differences in meal times between Spain and America. In Spain, breakfast is usually between 10AM-12PM, lunch is 2PM-4PM, and dinner is anywhere between 8PM-11PM. This may take some adjusting to—I know it did for me.
How to Make the Most of Study Abroad Programs in Spain
Studying abroad in Spain was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. If I could go back and do it again, I would. It’s no secret that food is a big part of culture and in Spain this definitely rings true.
One of the greatest things about living in the South of Spain is the tapas culture. When going to a bar or restaurant in Jaén, it’s common to receive free food when purchasing a drink—both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. While restaurants contain menus with “platos” or plates available for purchase, locals tend to only order these when eating in big groups. As college students on a budget, my roommate and I spent most nights eating tapas out because we found this to be more affordable than eating at home. So take advantage of your free tapas because they are tasty, give you a look into traditional Spanish cuisine, and won’t break the bank.
Immerse Yourself in the Spanish Language
When living in a foreign country, learning the local language can greatly improve your experience. While learning a language can be easier for some than others, there are a variety of ways you can practice outside of your language courses at the university. One of my favorite ways to practice Spanish while living in Jaén was intercambios—also known as language exchanges. Like I mentioned earlier, the overall level of English in Jaén is low. The schools don’t always teach it and students have to usually resort to private institutions which can be quite pricey.
An intercambio is where you meet up with someone and trade off speaking in each other’s languages as a way of learning by doing. You can find people looking to learn English and willing to teach you Spanish via an exchange on websites such as Tandem, through local Facebook groups, or through the Universidad de Jaén. Although I loved my Californian roommate during my study abroad year, I wished I had lived with a Spanish friend in order to further immerse myself in the language and speed up my learning pace. Engaging in intercambios is a great way to make these friends.
My study abroad year was only the beginning of my life in Spain. I fell in love in Spain—with Spain—and I have no doubt you will too. I met lifelong friends and after completing my undergraduate degree I went back for more. This experience changed my life and I would not be the same person I am today if I had not taken this opportunity. I highly recommend the CSU IP program in Spain for all those looking to learn about a culture that thrives on food, community, and a no pasa nada lifestyle.
Interested in learning more about why you should study abroad during college? Check out the career benefits you can enjoy by doing so.