By Jane Ford
Photo by Jane Ford
enjoy the spectacle of the Moros y Cristianos festival
in Alcoi, Spain. It
is one of the many
cultural activities in which they are immersed while studying
abroad in U.Va.’s Hispanic Studies Program, directed
by Fernando Operé.
SPAIN — Students participating in U.Va.’s Hispanic Studies
Program in Valencia took a bus trip to the mountain town of Alcoi in April to
see the final day of the Moros y Cristianos festival, a three-day spectacle of
parades, bands and mock battles celebrating the region’s independence from
Arab rule during the Middle Ages. While there, the students — 48 from U.Va.
and 66 from 29 other American college and universities — conversed
in Spanish as comfortably with the other festival goers and participants
as they would have
in English with their classmates back in the United States. After nearly
a semester of study abroad that had plunged them into the culture, language
of Spain, they were at ease.
The students’ immersion in Spanish life began in January, the moment they
stepped off the bus from the airport and met the host families they would live
with for the spring semester. They each had taken at least four semesters of
Spanish, but possessed various levels of fluency. The families, for the most
part, did not speak any English.
was tough when I first got [to Valencia],” said Sarah Paruolo, from
Bates College in Maine. “There’s no way to prepare for it. You have
to think about Spanish all the time. You have to work at it, even when you’re
watching TV. It’s culture shock, big time.”
The students attended classes in the program’s newly acquired and renovated
facility near the University of Valencia. Dedicated in September 2003, the facility
features a cafeteria, five classrooms, an auditorium and computer and study rooms.
During the spring 2004 semester, 26 upper-level classes
were offered through the program, each taught
entirely in Spanish by one of 12 faculty
The classes focused on Spanish language, culture, art, history and
entailed the same level of discourse and same depth of subject matter
as Spanish classes taught at U.Va.
According to director Fernando Operé, immersion in the language and culture
is a trademark of the Hispanic Studies Program, which began as a collaboration
between the University of Virginia and the University of Valencia in January
1984 but is now an autonomous program. “The students live with the families,
eat what they eat,” he said. “They have to converse and learn the
They learn a lot of other things, too, including how
to live on another time schedule. In Spain, stores
close between 2 and 4 p.m. when everyone
home for lunch and siesta. The earliest that dinner takes place
is 9:30 p.m., and
socializing with friends continues late into the night.
The students quickly adapted to the slower pace of life
and said they appreciated the differences between
how they lived in America
they lived with
their families in Spain.
Tricia Cooper, a third-year Spanish and history major
at U.Va., said her Valencia family was Catholic,
while her own family is
perspectives that she and her Spanish family brought to their
conversations at meal times or in the evenings while they played
La Oca, a Spanish
She also liked the food. “Everything is fresh,” she said, noting
that unlike her American family, her Spanish mother shopped daily for fresh meat
and fish at the market and brought home fresh bread every day.
Since it’s inception, the program has grown from 11 students to 114 this
spring, as well as in the scope of its offerings. In addition to having its own
facilities, it also boasts its own curriculum and hires its own faculty. Almost
5,000 students have attended it since 1984, and it has become a model for other
study-abroad programs, Operé said.
Over the years Enrique Celma, director of Servicios de
Programas Universitaries, which handles the nonacademic
sides of the program,
has worked hand-in-hand with Operé to provide the program’s growing academic
and cultural offerings.
In addition to trips to nearby towns, like the one to
Alcoi, Celma’s and
his staff organizes visits to Valencia’s cultural institutions and informal
outings in the city. They post weekly schedules of movies, plays, music and other
events, and this year started a magazine that publishes student articles written
in Spanish, created a theater group, and initiated a guest speaker series featuring
local leaders in media, government and legal ethics.
The SPU staff’s commitment to the students is legendary. David Gies, Commonwealth
Professor of Spanish, who has taught at Valencia numerous times, remembers when
Celma’s wife sewed Halloween costumes for the students. “They are
just amazing people — to go to that trouble even though they do not celebrate
Halloween,” he said.
The program’s exceptional teaching faculty is picked by Operé, who
is committed to continually raising the program’s academic standards and
broadening its scope. “Fernando’s a genius at this,” Gies said. “The
academic quality is extremely important to us.”
But don’t mistake academic rigor for stuffiness. Tony Angell, a Spanish
and anthropology major at U.Va., said he liked the “laid back Spanish attitude” that
permeated the classroom. “The classes are interactive, and the professors
joke a lot. The atmosphere facilitates learning.”
So does the cordial nature of the Spanish people.
Spaniards consider the street an extension of their
friends in cafes,
restaurants became part of the students’ everyday routine.
here are interested in learning about your
culture. There is a real cultural exchange,” said Jason Miller, a U.Va. Spanish and studio art major.
Mary Whiteside, a fourth-year Spanish and
pre-med major who graduated from
U.Va. in May, agreed.
is about “daily life — making a life
and developing relationships — not just study abroad.”