Madrid Was Transformative to My Life Abroad

by Ellen Hietsch

living abroad madrid spain ellen hietsch sunflowers learning

Year one in Madrid was transformative to my life abroad and in ways, I couldn’t have imagined. One of the activities I could do consistently throughout the year was to journal anywhere I could sit down. I’m excited to finally start organizing these thoughts by sharing my insights about living abroad on Dreams Abroad!

Last summer, I viewed my year of teaching in Madrid as a stepping stone toward a career in international education. It is a goal that has only strengthened with time. My expectations for the year were mostly centered around this path. There is, however, so much that I hadn’t considered. It has led to a year that I often describe as “unexpected.” Through a sometimes chaotic, but always rewarding year, I am proud of the person I have become.  

Here are five of the most important lessons I learned during my life abroad:

Don’t Hide From Confrontation

“If there’s one common thread through all of my personal conflicts in Madrid, it is that I avoided confrontation in each one. I have always struggled with directly confronting issues. Unfortunately, being the only American in a foreign environment capitalized this anxiety. Unsure of whether my concerns were genuine or just a result of a cultural difference, I pushed them behind smiles until my conflicts reached breaking points.

what i know now My Life Abroad

After I finally gained the courage to confront a co-worker about a situation I perceived as unfair, I realized that the roots of my anxiety about confrontation could actually be solved by… confrontation. In doing so, the two of us spoke about the situation amicably.

Being open and politely honest about a situation from the beginning prevents dams of pent-up emotions from forming. When confronted early on, miscommunications are more likely to be solved in a level-headed manner that leaves all parties satisfied. Ever since I grew comfortable with honest confrontation, I have had stronger, more trusting friendships. I can more easily see others’ perspectives when I am not blinded by my own strong emotions.”

Everything is a Learning Experience During My Life Abroad

“If you ask my friends and family what the worst thing you can say to me while I believe my entire world is burning is, they will say five words: “everything is a learning experience.” I’m aware of how true it is, hence why I’ve included it — but damn, learning experiences can be exhausting. Sometimes I just want to take a nice, little, self-pity nap for a bit, ya feel? I can reflect after a few hours of listening to Pink Floyd and living off of corner store candy.

Teaching books and supplies

When I say “everything,” I don’t just mean every bad experience, either. No, I mean literally everything — the good, the hysterical, the floating-on-air — everything. While I can identify a few big moments that exemplify my growth, I didn’t become equipped to approach them properly overnight. After difficult days at work, the positive outlooks and coping mechanisms I gained through spending time with my Madrid friends kept me balanced. In turn, having succeeded at work through independence and self-reliance helped me tackle much larger challenges, such as when I was mugged.  

Looking back on my year, I can’t think of a single significant memory that didn’t change my outlook over my time in Madrid. The accumulation of all my friendships and experiences gave me insight. It has allowed me to become someone who can be resilient through challenges big and small.”

Hang On Tight to the Little Things

map learning“There’s a quote from the Netflix series Master of None that I have hanging on my wall in Madrid: “You can’t just expect a big, roaring fire right away, right… you start with the small stuff… kindling.” While it refers to romantic relationships in the series, I have taken to finding kindling in every positive moment of my daily life. Sometimes, I take time to simply write down everything that is bringing me joy at the moment in my journal. I write about specific things that I love about my friends and little Madrid details that stand out to me. My “Kindling Lists” carry me forward when I feel trapped or afraid.  

Small things have the potential to build up into something significant. They can become “a big, roaring fire.” In the fray of chaos and change, while living abroad, the little things that bring happiness are often taken for granted or even overlooked. So much of our experiences are going to waste when we only focus on the large and emotional. Collecting small bits of positivity regularly can be a means of staying grounded when something larger seems out of control. If you take the time to acknowledge them, eventually you won’t even need to make the effort to find them.”

Be Reflective

“During my first few weeks in Madrid, I was met with many of the same challenges I had encountered in college. Determined to not repeat my past mistakes, I found solace in long walks through Retiro Park with my journal. Even as I moved multiple times, the habit stuck, and I now have four full journals.

While I will always rave about writing, it’s not the only way to reflect upon your time abroad. I have friends who used photography and music to document their time in Madrid. There are also one-second video apps that allow you to see how your time has progressed through small snippets of your most important memories. For me, even something like Spotify is vital to my reflection process. Whenever I am having strong feelings, I make a playlist.

sunflowers fields

However you choose to do so, being reflective will help you gain as much as you can from being abroad. In the moment, it can help with processing changes. In the future, you will have something to look back upon that evokes an important period of your life.”

Embrace Yourself and Everyone Around You

“I struggled with self-confidence throughout most of college. Actually, part of what drew me to pursue a career in international education was that my confidence was finally beginning to grow when I left the U.S. for the first time to study abroad in Denmark. For the first time since I was young, I felt at ease. This allowed me to be my authentic self around my friends and my host family. It’s no coincidence that I still count my Denmark circle among my closest friends.

In Madrid, this confidence not only continued to grow but overtook me. I no longer recognize the shy, scared girl I was in college. Putting up a front for everyone you meet is exhausting, and prevents authentic friendships from developing. I’ve found that allowing my whole personality to shine makes it easier to connect with a wider variety of people, instead of a small set I might be trying to fit in with. In the real world, the little boxes of college cease to exist. Madrid was the best place to learn this: the majority of the people I met, both expats and locals, were open-minded and friendly. I met interesting people everywhere I went. This built a mindset in which everyone that I met was a potential friend. After I had set this goal and succeeded many times, my fear of being myself all but disappeared.

I still have bursts of self-doubt sometimes, but having this year to look back upon calms them more quickly than any tactic I’ve used in the past. Madrid has shown me that authenticity is the best path to happiness. My life abroad has just begun and I cannot wait to where it takes me.”

Teach Abroad in Spain


It’s about putting yourself out there to make it the best you can!” — Morgan Yearout

I met Morgan Yearout over the summer in our online pre-departure course which required uploading information and writing in a course discussion board. It was there that I got to know Morgan (virtually) through her posts, which were often up within a day or two. I enjoyed reading her posts and it became a weekly routine for me; read the assignment then read what Morgan had to say.

Over the course of the weeks leading up to our arrival in Spain, we became friends. We would talk outside of the course framework and discuss our upcoming life-changing journey. It seemed beyond coincidence that, after arriving at the airport in Madrid, I ran right into Morgan! First impressions mean a lot, and she’s confirmed everything that I believed from our online interaction. She’s someone who has a bright spirit, which will uplift your own to new heights. I used to think of myself as a planner, and then I met Morgan. She brings planning to a new level. A level that makes you think, well, hey she’s got this. Why duplicate efforts? Let Morgan plan the trip since she loves doing it!

Oh and she’s got a laugh that is contagious. HONK HONK!

Meet Morgan, the Go-Getter:

morganMorgan is from Moses Lake, Washington. In her adolescent years, she grew up in a town called Royal City, Washington. She considers this the place where she grew the most as a person. She later attended Washington State University. “Go Cougs!” as Morgan would say!

Why did you choose to come to teach abroad in Spain?

“I had the opportunity to visit Spain twice in the past four years and Spain captured my heart despite my brief encounters. I longed to return. It’s hard to articulate my feelings with words but essentially Spain is everything and more I could want in a place to visit and reside. It’s a beautiful country that has unique differences in each region. Each place varies from the other in terms of food, pace of life, architecture, day-to-day routines, and historical influences. The reason I moved here for a year was that my previous two-week stints weren’t enough to experience it all. I was also looking for a different kind of challenge. I am always pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and learning a new language was something that would be a real struggle for me. Duolingo just wasn’t going to cut it!”

What are your goals while you are here?

“My main goal is to feel rooted here and learn Spanish. I would also love to teach abroad in Spain. I want to check off a couple of European bucket list items too. These items include a road trip through northern Spain, going wine tasting in Rioja, visiting Morocco, and Portugal (again) to get scuba certified.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what was your career field?

“I was a Senior Manager for Revenue Management at Hilton Worldwide. Essentially, I was responsible for training and developing team members to be most effective at hotel rate setting and supporting them in their career growth.”

What do you think teach abroad in Spain will be like? Where are you teaching?

“I think it will be challenging from the perspective that I won’t necessarily know the subject matter well or have time to prepare for a lesson. I am uncertain about what the political landscape of the school will be but I hope to build relationships with the teachers easily. Based on my experiences in Spain so far, I don’t think it will be that challenging. I’m excited to be teaching at a bilingual high school though! It’s an age group that I can relate to from my experiences back in the States, I have done plenty of community service with this age group. My students should have a foundation of English already established. I will be working in Madrid city center. I do not have too far to commute.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad in Spain? Why did you choose Spain over other countries?

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to immerse myself into the Spanish culture, learn Spanish, and explore Europe in a cost-effective way! I initially started applying to South Korea because the pay is better and it would be a potential culture shock and a greater challenge for me. Then, I deliberated on why I would really want to teach abroad and what I want to gain from it. Also, at the time of my application, I was in a really rough spot at work, getting sick and nauseous almost every day from stress and lack of sleep. I was looking for a way out to still get paid, take a break, and re-evaluate my life decisions since life flies when you’re doing the “8-5” rat race. I finally decided to teach abroad in abroad in Spain was the best for me and my health.”

What would you like to accomplish while you are in Spain?

“The main things I want to accomplish are to experience Spanish culture and not just as a tourist, I want to see what sticks and what doesn’t long term for my own lifestyle changes based on the Spanish way of life. I want to travel extensively, build long-lasting friendships, and converse decently in Spanish.”

What are your perceptions of Madrid so far?

“So far my perceptions are that it is a hard-working city, siestas are necessary to keep the balance of work and family. Locals live a life of moderation in everything they do. For example, working out, drinking and eating AKA not overindulgent (obviously there’s going to be outliers), very community/relationship-based, and they are a social society. They have a deep understanding of their roots, appreciation/pride, minimalist, resourceful/conservationists, and tons of green space. I love all the outdoor activities the people of Madrid engage in. Madrid has a plethora of cultural experiences with museums, theatre, matador, monuments, dance performances, and classes.”

What assumptions or expectations did you have before you came here? Have you found them to be accurate or inaccurate?

“I typically live in a way where I keep expectations and assumptions low so that I can just experience things as they are and embrace them. That being said, my perceptions of Madrid I have stated and I have found most of them to be accurate for Spain except I didn’t expect this city to be so vibrant and full of life. I imagined it would be more like a typical big city with a lot of buildings and people; but truly, this city is electric, especially at night!

I also didn’t realize how much of an emphasis on work/life balance there is. Especially when it comes to maintaining strong family and friend relationships. They really make time for each other and it’s a rarity to see a Spanish person not with at least one other friend or family member unless they are en route to meet up. It’s a very cohesive society based on what I’ve been exposed to.”

What has been the most difficult since you arrived?


“Truly, not much. I think it’s all about the perception of the struggles we encounter. I think dealing with the government red tape with getting the Visa, needing a passport to get a SIM card, and the last-minute sexual assault form was a nuisance but well worth it!”

What has been the best experience?

“I have several: Running through Retiro Park and seeing new sites every time that take my breathe away, running along the river and enjoying the various vibes of leisurely folk picnicking, the skate park, the playgrounds, the runners, people on roller blades, walkers, and bikers on the trail, and the café vibes; so much variety! Other best experiences have been finding quality friends in Madrid through the CIEE program to explore the beautiful city and other parts of Spain with. It’s beginning to feel like I have a family here in a very short period of time and I am blessed for that.

I also really appreciate my living experience since I am doing Babel Bridges and have a fabulous host family to house me all year. The parents have a 13-year-old and 10-year-old boy and they are like my “brothers.” They are so warm, welcoming, and kind. The Mother and Father are also so pure-hearted, sharing, patient with communication barriers, and open-minded. I have been accepted into the family as one of their own since day one and I cannot be more grateful.”

How do you feel about the integration of the culture so far? Are there things that you have embraced or are hoping to embrace?

“I feel well integrated based on my time here. It’s about putting yourself out there to make it the best you can! I have a host family so that by default has helped a lot. I also am involved in private Spanish courses so I can converse better with locals. But overall, I think I’ve embraced the culture and had a pretty good idea of what I was signing myself up for before I got here.”

Morgan knew from the moment she stepped off the plane (and probably way before that) what her goals were while living in Spain. It was clear in her pre-departure posts online, and now after we arrived that Morgan wants to challenge herself beyond the point of planning. She wants to go above and beyond what she normally would in order to prove to herself, and herself alone, that she is not only willing but she is able to push herself outside her comfort zone. Morgan has already crossed off two of her bucket list items. She took her road trip to northern Spain and she frolicked with the camels in Morocco. I can’t wait to see what adventure and story she has for us next time.

Stay tuned for our next series of Teacher Connections in 2017! We will follow up with our cadre of teachers that we interviewed to learn more about their life in Spain.

by Leesa Truesdell