I always knew that studying abroad would be part of my college experience, and knowing that JMU had a study abroad program factored into my decision to go there. I began taking Spanish classes in 7th grade, so once I completed the initial Spanish coursework at JMU during my freshman year, it seemed like the natural next step was to study abroad during my sophomore year. I had one teacher in high school who always told us of her time living in Spain. That stuck with me, and when I found out that JMU had a large, organized program in Spain, I jumped at the opportunity.
I am grateful that I wound up at JMU because the study abroad program there in the late 90's far exceeded what my friends at other major universities had available to them. The level of detail, the quality of the education and professors in Salamanca, the amount of prep work at JMU before leaving, the quality of the weekend trips throughout the country, and basically every other aspect of the program was head and shoulders over many other programs I've researched and at comparable or less cost.
While I have been removed from the JMU community for more than 10 years, I check back to their study abroad website frequently to see how things have changed. The Salamanca program now seems exponentially better than what I experienced, and what I experienced was among the best available. (Hats off to JMU!)
So much of my time abroad was unique and special that it's hard to pin it down to something finite. I really enjoyed the group of students from JMU who were part of that first semester abroad. But I also wanted to make sure that I took full advantage of the opportunity, so I sought out Spanish friends, too. My host family had a daughter who was only a few years younger than me, and we hit it off quite well. She showed me the ropes a bit, took me to places where the locals would hang out, shop, eat, etc. And, because of that relationship, I really embraced the time I was able to spend with my host family.
Because Salamanca is a college town, there are people coming and going from all parts of the world. But there is also a very large population of Spanish students, most of whom speak English and are looking to improve their language skills. I made friends with several Spaniards and we'd meet up regularly for coffee or tapas. I would practice my Spanish, they would practice their English, and in the meantime, we forged some great friendships. Those friends also helped show me how the Spanish college students lived, which was exactly what I wanted to see.
Through the JMU program, there were guided weekend trips to all of the major Spanish cities - Madrid, Barcelona, Toledo, Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba, etc. And we had weekends to explore other parts of the country and continent. I was lucky enough to get to Portugal, France, Greece and the UK, in addition to many exciting places within Spain. (This was all before the Euro when the US dollar was particularly strong, making living abroad about as cheap as it had ever been. Had that not been the case, I'm sure I would have experienced far less outside of Spain.)
By the end of my first 4-month semester in Spain, I felt so fully immersed in the culture that it felt like home. I couldn't see myself going back to the US to finish out my college degree. Through the JMU program, I was granted special permission to return to Salamanca as a student advisor, which afforded me the opportunity to help other students enjoy their time as much as I did.
During my return semesters, I took classes at the Universidad de Salamanca (instead of through the study abroad program), which exposed me to true college courses in a different language. I shifted my major from Mass Media Communications with a minor in Spanish to a major in Spanish with minors in Mass Media Command International Business. I secured an internship with a local vineyard in Vallodolid where I translated their marketing materials into English to help with their tourism and export business. I taught English to a family that I met through professors, and I continued to foster life-long friendships with those I met along the way.
There is something awe-inspiring when you sit in a classroom that has been around since the 1200s. Every street contains buildings older than the US. We saw parts of the world where history was made, where religions coexisted for many years without turmoil, where wars were fought before Europeans even though North America existed. It really puts you in your place. I am proud to be an American, but I gained such perspective about the rest of the world and my role in it during this time. That is something you just can't describe in a brochure about a study abroad program. I have taken those lessons with me to the business world and I have succeeded because of it. Having an appreciation for what happened outside of my immediate sphere of influence has impacted more and helped provide the college experience I could only imagine.