July 23-Sept. 2, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 14
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Students Experience Spain


Students Experience Spain

By Jane Ford

Moros y Cristianos festival in Alcoi, Spain
Photo by Jane Ford
Students 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.

VALENCIA, 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 and traditions 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.

“It 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 members. The classes focused on Spanish language, culture, art, history and literature 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 language.”

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 goes 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 and how 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 Jewish. She liked the different 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 board game.

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 and administrative 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 homes. Meeting friends in cafes, bars and restaurants became part of the students’ everyday routine.

“People 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. The program is about “daily life — making a life and developing relationships — not just study abroad.”


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