Independence Day in Medellin, Colombia


It was Summer 2015. I was packing for my first summer abroad where I would be doing an internship to complete my master’s degree. It was July 4th and I was traveling alone on an international flight for the first time to Medellin, Colombia. It seemed so surreal to leave the U.S. on a holiday that was so special – not only to our nation but to me as well. Since I was a child, I’ve always enjoyed the holiday. At the time, I hadn’t fully recognized the depth of what the holiday meant for the nation. However, I made my own meaning and memories each year. Many of those childhood memories are still vivid in my mind and lasting in my heart. As I get older, time spent means more to me – especially time with family and friends.


Independence Day in Colombia


I arrived in Medellin, Colombia on the Fourth of July, 2015. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was absolutely terrified. This Independence Day wasn’t going to be one that I had ever experienced. I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into. I felt extremely excited to be there.

At the same time, I also felt the bottomless questions bubbling up in my mind. They all began with “what if…” This was in part because of the rumors I had heard about the city: “It’s a drug town!” and, “You are going to get killed!” I was also scared of not letting go of myself – or having freedom. I wanted the freedom to just be. So, there I was on the Fourth of July, in another country, not knowing how to be free because I was terrified.

Success Abroad

I didn’t know how to speak the language very well (yet). Whatever I did know was being stifled because of fear. I was inhibiting my own chance at success because of fear. I took a deep breath and walked downstairs in the airport. The front desk security guard looked at me and I looked at him. We both said, “hola,” and “hello,” at the same time. He started rapping at me in Spanish so fast that I couldn’t get my mind fixated on what I wanted to ask him. I smiled and quickly said, “¡Gracias!

I was tired from my flight and started to think, what should I ask next? How do I get groceries? Where is the closest place to buy food? Where am I? Who am I? What’s my name? Suddenly things that I thought I knew how to ask for in Spanish weren’t coming to mind! All that practice with Lee, my tutor, before I left came flashing in front of me. I could see Lee! I could see him saying, ¿Donde esta la tienda?


Getting Grounded

No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t say it! Why was I feeling this helpless? Not to mention, I felt completely clueless. The airport driver dropped me off in front of my building. He said I would have an event later that day… I never thought I would have felt so clueless! Evelio the receptionist and security guard, the man who wore two hats (arguably three or four) and I were just staring at one another. We were lost in translation. I looked at him and said, “hasta luego,” and waved. He looked at me and gave me a smile.


Luckily, later that evening there was a barbeque with a group of the interns. Here, I would meet and speak with others from around the world. I soon found out that I wasn’t the only one who felt a bit nervous. Nevertheless, I was the only intern working on her master’s and in her 30s. But, that didn’t stop me from making new friends.

On a Quest of Independence

Pause… stop. I met my soon-to-be best friend at this barbeque. This is history: an Independence Day historical moment. I not only was on a quest for independence in my own right, but I also met one of the dearest people in that process. I didn’t know it at the time, but my holiday away from home in Medellin would soon be the beginning of a very special friendship. Now, every year around the Fourth of July (or close to it), it represents a symbolic anniversary for our friendship. A day of courage, a day of personal freedom, of national freedom, and of the joining of two very different people on the journey of a lifetime. Luis and I are forever friends joined by the epic lifetime event in both our lives – a summer internship abroad in Medellin, Colombia.


Living Abroad and Teaching English: Part Three

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that the subject of my interview for this piece is, in fact, a close friend. Leesa and I met during the orientation week held by CIEE. We were both (as were many of us) overwhelmed by jet-lag, the newness of the place, the task ahead of us, the ungodly heat of Madrid in August, and the sheer amount of paperwork. At one of the pre-arranged get-togethers, Leesa and I found ourselves seated on either side of one of the orientation leaders (the lovely Lynnette A., a contributor to this blog and angel from heaven for newcomers to Madrid). Leesa mentioned that she was from a smallish town in Florida and it just so happened to have been where I had lived before. The ensuing conversation turned into a new friendship, fueled by adventures through Europe on planes, trains, and automobiles.

Despite a not-inconsiderable age difference (she being the age of my eldest daughter), we have managed to form a true bond. While I may have known Leesa well before, I learned even more about her during the following interview. Readers, may I reintroduce Leesa, the founder and fearless leader of Dreams Abroad. To catch up, take a look at Leesa’s last interview about teaching in the Community of Madrid. It goes over daily activates, lesson plans, and brainstorming ideas.

You’ve traveled a great deal since you began your adventure in August. What was one of your first trips?

“I went with a friend to Mallorca. While there, I saw the cathedral in Palma. It was the first Gothic cathedral I had seen since visiting Spain.”

Did you feel any sort of connection to Mallorca while you were there?

mallorca houses on the water“I would say that I did. I have relatives from Puerto Rico, and it was easy for me to relate to the island lifestyle. Although it’s nothing like the Caribbean, being on the water and, of course, having the Latin rhythm of life, helped me feel a connection. Going with a friend, and sharing this experience with her, made it even more special and impactful.”

You spoke at length about your “tool kit” in your first interview. Do you feel that you’ve added anything to it in your time here?

“I feel like I’ve added many things to my toolkit since I’ve been here. With regard to my profession as an educator, I certainly feel more empowered to speak and communicate more effectively in front of a class. I am able to understand the needs of students and can listen to what students are telling me. As I mentioned in the first interview, listening as a skill is very important to me; important in my own language and in Spanish as well. I’ve been honing that in both the classroom and in the interviews I’ve been conducting for Dreams Abroad. My writing has come a long way since I’ve been here. I attribute that to my focus on improving my listening skills.

In fact, I may have overcompensated on listening when it comes to my Spanish learning. I think I can understand 90% of what I hear in Spanish now. However, this has been at the expense of practicing my speaking, which is not where I’d like it to be. I meet now with a conversation tutor to try and practice speaking more.”

You came to Spain with an open mind. How’s your mind now?

“My grandmother passed away recently. Her passing has made me realize a lot about life. I’m trying to remember the good times while, at the same time, continuing to go with the flow. There was a point just after her death that I was really, deeply grieving and my mind wasn’t open. I had shut out this whole experience because I was feeling so sad. It got to the point that I was actually rejecting the culture of Spain and everything around me because I was so focused on my loss and the past. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was hypercritical of everything around me and could only think of the past when she was alive, and all that entailed.”

plaza major madrid spain abroad

You’ve now lived and worked abroad in both Colombia and Spain. How would you compare them?

“Colombia was my first experience living abroad. It will always have a very special place in my heart. It’s a loving, welcoming culture that’s full of opportunities for those who want to learn a beautiful version of Spanish. There needs to be a structure put into place, but I think that’s what makes the school system so unique.

Thinking about my time there makes my heart smile. I will always have such fond memories of Colombia. At the time, I was still studying for my masters. I was able to visit so many schools, meet so many children, and see so many classrooms. Each had unique methodologies with the same goal of trying to teach and learn English. None of them had a very high proficiency level at the time. Nonetheless, they were all trying to do the best with what they had. That is what made it such a great experience for me.

With Spain, when I arrived here I had already lived in a foreign country and so had already overcome any uncertainty or doubt about speaking in a foreign country. I didn’t have any fear of making my way through the city after having lived in Medellin. I love my school and the classroom that I have now. However, if I had to compare the two, I would say that at the school in Colombia is a model that needs to be developed and that’s a process that I enjoy very much. I love big ideas and creating, developing and forming things into their fullest potential and I feel like there’s still that opportunity there.
school teaching studying classroom-spain

In Spain, they are building a foundation in which there is a lot of controversy and negativity. It’s spiraling into strikes by teachers and students and there’s not one clear path. Educators, politicians, and the general public are not on the same page and there’s a lot of hostility as a result. Students remain in the system only because they aren’t sure what’s next for them and teachers remain in the system beyond their years of peak effectiveness.”

How do you like teaching at the secondary level?

“This is my first experience teaching at this level, which is around middle and high school, and I really like it. I especially enjoy working with the students who have studied and put in the time to attain such a high level as to put on a play in English! From casting to rehearsals, stage crew, and props… all in English — it’s been a really cool experience.”

How has it been with what you called your “new family” of friends that you met through CIEE?

“It’s been an interesting eight months. I developed some friendships that have come and gone and some that will last forever. Those that have come and gone have done so for a reason. The friends that will last forever have proven themselves through life-challenging situations. There are times when you need someone not even two weeks from now, or maybe even in the middle of the night. It’s then when the depth of a true and lasting friendship is proven. The size of my new, extended family is definitely smaller. It’s become refined through some challenges, but I still cherish the large circle of people I met during our 4-week program! We will always remain bound by that amazing, unbelievably hot month in Madrid.”

spain madrid teaching abroad

How are you doing with “Spanish Time?”

“It’s funny, we were just discussing this in one of my classes. Some of my students are planning hypothetical trips to different parts of the world and I asked them if they had taken the potential differences of time into consideration. Dinner time is not going to be at 10:00 PM everywhere! That is something that I will never get as an American living here in Spain. I still eat dinner at 7:00 or 8:00 PM. I still can’t adjust!”

Leesa is continuing to work on new ideas with the Dreams Abroad team for the next school year and is very excited to see where the journey will take her. She plans to return home in July to see her family for the first time since the death of her beloved and inspirational grandmother and will continue exploring new ideas for traveling, teaching, and living abroad. Stay tuned for the next chapters of Dreams Abroad. Please join our Dreams Abroad Facebook group to share stories and photos.

by Cate Dapena