BYU experiential learning thrives in Spain

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The classroom had many of the same characteristics found in any similar room at BYU. Students dressed in everything from sweatpants and T-shirts to sun dresses and hair bows. Some listened intently, and others were distracted with their phones.

After the professor spoke to them about their assignments, students headed up to the front of the classroom one by one to give PowerPoint presentations. The class seemed completely typical. 

Visitacion Canas, a professor in Spain, leads a class discussion during one of the classes at the University of Alcalá. (Camille Baker)

However, this classroom was thousands of miles away from a typical Provo classroom, nestled in the middle of the small Spanish town of Alcalá de Henares.

According to the BYU International Study Programs office, 1,227 students were accepted to Spring 2018 programs. The International Study Programs office said this number is typical each year.

About 2,000 BYU students will study abroad each year, and about 24 percent of BYU students will go on at least one study abroad while attending BYU. This percentage may also be slightly lower since some BYU students will participate in more than one study abroad program.

According to the International Study Programs office, 1,112 students have been accepted to study abroad programs that include Spain as a main location since 2006.

This Spring 2018 term, 25 students joined the ranks of the 1,112 students since 2006 to experience Spain.

Watch this video below to see what a study abroad in Spain is like. (Video by Camille Baker)

Studying in Spain

While attending classes at the University of Alcalá, BYU students learned firsthand how foreign classes compare to classes on the BYU campus.

Katelyn Rodriguez, a recent BYU graduate and program participant, said students in their program generally had class from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., with occasional breaks in between. Because they tried to be in their rooms by around midnight each night, they had 10 hours of free time each day to explore, eat and do homework.

Many of the study abroad students said the general nature of the classes were different than those they are used to on the BYU campus.

BYU junior Derek Vasquez gives a presentation in one of his classes during the Spring 2018 Spain study abroad. (Camille Baker)

“They make us do presentations every week, but it’s actually really fun. You learn a lot of different things, but it’s not too intense. Sometimes I can even get my homework done in class,” Rodriguez said.

BYU junior Capri Dahle said she loved her time participating in the Spain program.

“Seriously, it’s so fun to put on your backpack in the morning and walk down the narrow streets and the cobblestone roads to get to school,” she said.

Visitacion Canas, a professor at the University of Alcalá who teaches classes for BYU’s Spain program, said she feels studying abroad has a big impact on the students’ education.

“Being abroad is of major importance for the students’ education. When they travel, they see a different perspective, and it modifies their learning experience. They become more tolerant and more open,” Canas said. “Personally, I always send my own children on study abroads whenever I can.”

Many students agreed with Canas in how studying abroad encourages new perspectives and experiences. Although they do have set classes they attend at the University of Alcalá, most of their learning is done outside the classroom, according to BYU junior Sam Heywood.

The trip brought with it occasional challenges for some students. Certain classes took up more of the students’ time, and the back-to-back activities most days left some students exhausted.

“The most time-consuming class is the Madrid Walks class,” BYU senior Riley McKenna said. “It requires us to go out and do activities and talk to people every week. I don’t really love it.”

BYU sophomore Jentry McGregor said her experience in Spain was difficult at first. The culture was very different from what she was used to in the United States, and having so many things change in her life at once — the activity schedule, food, language, service, people and sleep cycle — was taxing. However, rather than saying “why me?” she decided to say “try me” and rose to face the challenge.

“I’ve learned how to make things that aren’t enjoyable to me, enjoyable. When I’m visiting a location I find uninteresting, I try and think what it would have been like to live here,” McGregor said. “When I’m confused by the way people are acting in a different culture, I try and picture what it’s like to live in a country where that’s the norm. I don’t think I could have developed a skill like this without getting way outside my comfort zone.”

Reasons for studying abroad

Some students chose to study abroad to experience the different Spanish culture; however, the students’ motives for going were widely varied.

University of Utah student Annie Pugmire said she wasn’t even studying Spanish. She was majoring in biology and planned to go to medical school, but she wanted to improve her language skills.

Every student in the group had some Spanish language experience, whether they had served a Spanish-speaking mission, are Spanish majors or minors or are working toward the Spanish certificate.

BYU sophomore Quin Daly served a Spanish-speaking mission in the United States. He said he wanted to study abroad in Spain to experience the language.

“I wanted to come to Spain and really experience what it is to be fully immersed in the language,” Daly said.

BYU junior Jeff Shipley said he wanted to experience another Spanish-speaking country besides Mexico, where he served his mission.

Two of the students in the group also found a family history connection to Spain. BYU junior Cristian Torres has family, who he identified as gypsies, who live in Spain. He visited his family when he was little and again this year during his study abroad.

BYU junior Carolina Rendón also wanted to visit Madrid to learn more about her family, which is from Madrid.

“I wanted to come because my family is from Madrid. My ancestors started off in Spain, but I’m the first one from my family to come back. I always knew my family was from Spain, but I never knew the full story until I planned to come to Spain,” Rendón said. “At that point, my uncles started showing me stories and history of our family, and I got to learn so much more about my own genealogy.”

Rendón also said she enjoyed making connections to her major — international relations — through learning more about the history of Spain, where she could ask questions not only to her Spanish professors but also to regular people on the trains or in the streets.

“It’s cool to see what professors teach us and what the people just think. It’s just like what they’re taught to think and what they’re taught to believe,” Rendón said. “I’ve gotten to see how Spaniards and how education sees things differently.”

Trying to feel the Spanish culture and get involved in that culture is a huge part of the study abroad experience, according to Rendón.

Heywood said his experiences abroad were a “perfect example” of BYU President Kevin J Worthen’s experiential learning initiative.

“My two majors are Spanish and history, and I’m just immersed completely in Spanish and history,” Heywood said. “The majority of our learning is outside of the classroom, through talking to people and embracing the culture and experiencing everything for ourselves.”

Heywood said something unexpected from the study abroad program was meeting the people — those in his program and those there in Spain — and forming those relationships.

“Of course the sights are amazing and seeing those with people that I can enjoy my time with, it’s been really great,” Heywood said.

BYU junior Quincey Hettinger echoed this.

She said making friends and enjoying the experiences abroad are important things to remember when studying abroad.

“The work load definitely is different I think, and the focus obviously of the study abroad is to have these historical experiences while we’re out traveling and not just about what is happening in the classroom,” Hettinger said.

Watch the video below to hear interviews from some of the study abroad students as they share their experiences and show what it’s like to live in Spain. (Video by Camille Baker)

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