Alumni Spotlight: Valerie Sokolova


Brand marketing & consumer research manager temporarily turned language assistant. No professional teaching background, although some coaching and mentoring experience. Primary professional background in business, strategy, and some language skills.

Why did you choose this program?

I wanted a paid position in a Spanish or Portuguese speaking country where I could immerse myself in the culture and learn the language. CIEE had a very user-friendly website with many countries and roles to choose from, and their dedicated staff who provided continuous support, helpful links and webinars, and one-on-one communication.

They clearly had decades of experience and knew exactly what was needed during every step of the way. They are also one of the few organizations that did not require a TOEFL certification or other professional teaching experience, which was important in my case.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

CIEE virtually held our hand through the entire logistical process of getting to Spain. They provided all the dates and documents needed to first get the visa and then the residency card once we arrived in Spain. The whole process is quite cumbersome and would have been especially difficult to manage in a new language in a new country.

CIEE made it very easy and made sure that we always filled everything out correctly and submitted documents in time. They have a 24/7 support service for any questions that may arise before or during our stay. CIEE also linked us with a school in the Madrid area and handled the employment questions until we arrived in Spain. We also had a week long orientation when we got to Spain to educate us on the new culture, our job expectations and requirements, legal responsibilities, living arrangements, and other important questions.

Overall, CIEE made it pretty easy to arrive and get acclimated in Spain. The only thing that was left to us was to actually come to our local Consulate of Spain to apply for the visa and then eventually buy the ticket to Spain. We also had about about a month to find housing on our own, although CIEE provided extensive support on best practices, tips, and which websites to use. Because CIEE created a large community of language assistants during orientation, most of us became roommates with friends that we made during that week.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Don't stress too much about anything! You should be excited, maybe a little nervous, but as long as you submit all the documents on time, trust that CIEE will take care of everything and walk you through the process. If anything is unclear, ask questions. Everyone wants you to succeed and have a great time while you are here.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

We are all assigned to different schools, so our average day would vary depending on the school. In primary schools, where kids are very young, there is minimal prep work and assistants mostly play games or sing songs to get the kids used to the English language and its sounds.

In secondary (middle / high) school, there can be a lot more prep work as we often teach actual lesson material, but it is also fun and very rewarding. We say that, in Primaria, kids love you unconditionally and it might be a bit easier, but while Secundaria takes more work to gain the students' trust and respect, you can have much more meaningful conversations with them and potentially greater impact.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

As I was leaving the corporate life and a steady career, my biggest concern was financial stability on a drastically reduced salary. I quickly found out that the cost of living in Spain is also much lower than in the US, but it still requires budgeting and ideally some secondary income to live comfortably as we are used to back home.

On average, we spend about half our income on rent, and most people pick up private tutoring classes to supplement their income. I was concerned about finding lessons, but it turned out to be quite easy with a lot of options: talk to your school coordinator, let your teachers know that you are available, post on our massive Madrid Facebook group, etc.

You can also offer something unique of your own. For example, I started teaching yoga and, once I had a steady student base in a few months, I gave up my tutoring classes to focus solely on yoga and make my income there (in addition to still teaching at my school).