Prior to graduating from college I had the desire for another practical experience abroad that I could add to my resume. I love a challenge and will do whatever is necessary to accomplish my goals, but for this experience I needed a more accessible destination.
I am paraplegic and use a manual wheelchair for mobility. Since I have an interest in international business, and Spanish is such a common language in the world, I decided to participate in an intensive Spanish language program abroad.
I took advantage of the considerable information available on the Internet and did a large amount of research and correspondence regarding prospective language programs. I contacted a dozen different language schools around various locations in Spain. My initial inquiries regarded accessibility and then, once deemed acceptable, requested further program details.
After corresponding with different people and organizations, I judged Valencia to be the most accessible. I then investigated various language schools and decided to do a two-month program at Galileo Galilei – Escuela de Español.
Valencia is the third largest city in Spain, situated on the beautiful Mediterranean coast. Even though it’s an old medieval city, Valencia has grown into a modern metropolis. I was amazed at how wheelchair-accessible it is. In fact, I spent the first 90% of my stay in Valencia rolling around rather than using public transportation. While I was out exploring the city on my own, I happened to notice that there were other wheelchair users navigating the city too.
I lived in the student residence at the Universidad Politechnica de Valencia—the university that hosts the language school—within five minutes walking distance from the Mediterranean Sea. It was nice to go down to the (accessible) promenade by the beach. The helpful faculty at both the language school and residence furnished an accessible room for me. I figured that it would be safest to just arrange accessible accommodation at the university, even though I later found accessible apartments in the city.
During the last two weeks of my stay I used the metro, subway system and bus system. They were all completely accessible, inexpensive and covered the expanse of the city. I saw almost all of the main sights and can validate Valencia’s international reputation for its nightlife! Accessibility in the city is comparable, if not considerably better, than any city I have been in the United States. Considering that tourism is a main component of Spain’s economy, the accessibility is not surprising. Valencia is becoming more tourist-oriented, although the roots of the city are in agriculture and fishing.
Although I felt comfortable living there, the language barrier proved to be an area of difficulty. In Spain, the dialect of Spanish is dependent on the province, and these differ from the dialects of the Americas. Therefore, the Spanish I learned and used in Spain is somewhat different compared to what is, more or less, commonly spoken in the Americas. So, the limited Spanish skills that I entered the country with were greatly challenged!
Fortunately, I assimilated quickly and felt well acquainted after the second week. I was in class with a group of 6-10 other students, mostly from Europe, and the course was taught entirely in Spanish. During those first two weeks, I struggled to comprehend but gradually learned to understand what the instructors said. I figured life would become easier if I continued to immerse myself in the language and tried to speak Spanish most of the time. Fortunately, most people were patient and willing to help me progress. It did not take long to become comfortable socializing with the locals using my new language skills.
I wanted to live like the Spaniards do, so I adopted the local and national customs while I was there. I have to say I love the Spanish lifestyle! I think it is healthier in many respects than what I am accustomed to as an American. I had coffee and a pastry everyday for breakfast. Lunch, the main meal, is a large three-course meal served around mid-afternoon. For dinner, at around 9pm, it is common to have tapas which are the Spanish-equivalent to appetizers. We would usually have a variety of tapas and wonderful Spanish wines while going around to various cafes each night. The residence provided some meals and I usually ate either lunch or dinner elsewhere.
Spain has similar customs to those of its neighboring countries. However, it also has it’s own unique styles which can be witnessed in how Spaniards focus simply on enjoying life. I also liked the time-orientation, or lack of, in Spain. In fact, it is typical to start work/study around 9am, eat lunch around 2pm, have dinner around 9pm, and then go out to clubs until the early morning hours. Surprisingly, I had an ample amount of energy and could continue this routine as long as I practiced the Spanish tradition of taking a siesta each afternoon, which is still widely observed in Valencia. (However, in Barcelona and Madrid, the tradition of integrating siestas into the workday is being phased out due to globalization.)
I saw other Spanish traditions such as a bullfight and Flamenco dancing. I also celebrated with the locals when Valencia won the national fútbol (soccer) championship for the first time in thirty-one years! The city exploded with celebration.
My trip to Spain was one of the most fruitful and influential experiences I have ever had. Not only did I improve my Spanish, but also I also learned about so many different cultures and grew personally. I gained confidence in my ability to be independent and deal with challenges in foreign situations. The experience also awakened in me a strong desire to live internationally in the future.
For those trying to arrange a similar opportunity abroad, have patience, persistence, flexibility, and be positive. It will pay off—don’t give up! Fortunately, a previous exchange experience I had taught me that, whether you like it or not, you are an ambassador for your country. Furthermore, I felt like I was well received because I tried to be more respectful of other cultures and was open to doing things differently. I would definitely recommend venturing out to meet and socialize with people outside one’s own culture and background. Despite some initial unease, I am so glad that I did because I learned so much and had a rich cultural experience.