I enrolled in CIEE’s 3-month volunteer program in the Castilla La Mancha region of Spain that ran from February 1, 2016 to April 30, 2016. Below, I have broken my review into sections so that it is more reviewer friendly.
Quick Personal Background:
I am 26-year old male who decided to quit his corporate job to pursue a life-long dream of living and working in another country. Traveling and experience other cultures is one of the things that truly excites me in life and so I made a concerted effort to save money over the course of three years for future travel plans. Prior to enrolling in CIEE’s teaching abroad in Spain program, I neither had formal knowledge of the Spanish language nor of its culture. I now am working to master the Spanish language and hope to eventually relocate back to Spain.
Learning About & Enrolling with CIEE:
I was referred to the CIEE organization through a college friend who enrolled in their year-long program upon graduating college in 2012. That friend, like me, did not speak Spanish and had never been to Spain and I felt her experience/perspective was a good barometer for me to decide if teaching in Spain was the correct opportunity for me. I did some further research and read reviews about CIEE and most of the information was positive. I even reached-out to a previous CIEE Spain blogger who responded and was very helpful with my questions. CIEE offers several different programs if you want to live and work in another country. Since I did a volunteer program, I was responsible essentially for all costs. You are provided housing and two-meals per day which helps to subsidize some of your costs.
Pros about CIEE:
• CIEE was prompt in responding to my questions (I had a ton!) about the program such as, insurance scenarios, host-family contact information, transportation information, etc. My phone calls were almost always answered and I did not have to leave many messages but did receive return calls when required to leave a message
• It was comforting to speak with someone and a company located here in the U.S. and not overseas. I have had other friends apply for teach-abroad programs that turned out to be scams and you can rest assured knowing that CIEE is legitimate. Knowing that CIEE was located in the U.S. reassured me that the fees, documents, and other information were all legitimate and I could trust that important items were not going to be missed or lost in translation
• This point may echo the last two, but I did enjoy that there was a more formalized application process with CIEE compared to some other teach-abroad opportunities that I came across on the web. It was nice having someone to contact who could walk you through the application process and answer your questions
• I thought that CIEE also did a tremendous job at coordinating the host family living situations. There is a section during the application process that allows you to give some input so that you can be best matched with a host family. My match could not have been more perfect! I still keep in contact with my Spanish family on a bi-weekly basis
• Three-months in Spain was the perfect amount of time to gauge if Spain was really a place I could see myself living and if I would enjoy staying longer. CIEE seemed to be one of the few companies who provided a 3-month opportunity. Although we weren’t getting paid, the housing and meal compensation really helped to reduce the cost of living abroad (i.e. not worrying about finding temporary housing and paying for rent) and provided a unique experience of living with a host family.
Cons about CIEE:
• Changes in Program Start and End Dates: This is my most frustrating point regarding CIEE but to be fair, some of this may have indeed been out of their control. The application deadline was late October 2015 and the program was originally listed to run from January 1, 2016 to March 30, 2016. I technically missed the deadline to apply but after calling and speaking with a representative, they informed me that the deadline had been extended and I could go still complete my application. I was informed within a week that I had been accepted to the program and that additional information would follow with a BOLD note stating NOT to book any flights at this time. This made me very nervous for several reasons:
1) I needed to resign from my job in order to partake in this opportunity. Since it was a volunteer opportunity and I was voluntarily leaving my employer, I would not be able to collect unemployment and therefore would not have any income for the next several months.
2) Flights are expensive and the costs only increases the longer you wait to book.
3) Non-sufficient time to make arrangements for life obligations while I would be in Spain. I have my own apartment, bills, etc. that I need to find ways to address while I was overseas
It was not until December that the program participants were notified that some items were unable to be finalized and that the program start date would need to be pushed-back until February 1, 2016. I consistently followed-up with CIEE on the status of our program through the month of December and it wasn’t until the second week of January 2016 that we received confirmation on the definite dates of the program and permission to book our travel arrangements. This left me barely enough time to properly resign from my job and make arrangements for my American life while I would be overseas. Thankfully, I was able to more or less leave on a moment’s notice but not everyone is afforded this luxury. If this is your first time going to another country, I could only imagine how stressful this would be for someone traveling to another country for his or her first time. However, as I mentioned in the beginning, much of this may have indeed been out of CIEE’s control as processes definitely do tend to move much slower in Spain. Still, this was a frustrating time throughout the process.
• On-site orientation: The orientation was held in the city of Toledo. It was nice that CIEE provided a two-day orientation upon arriving in Spain but I was left feeling somewhat confused at its conclusion. For instance, once the education representatives of Castilla La Mancha were done giving us an overview of the program and providing us tips for classroom instruction and activities, we went downstairs to meet with our host families. Note: Some participants had already made prior arrangements (facilitated with the help of CIEE) to take trains to meet their host families since Toledo was a bit of a drive for some. I had pictured more of a meet and greet type setting where we would all have some time to speak with our host families and say goodbye/exchange contact information with the other participants. In contrast, we met our hosts and then immediately were on our way to our Spanish homesteads. I wanted to say thank you to the organizers and other instructors and barely had the chance to do so. In the big picture, this is rather a minor con but I thought I would make the suggestion to allow a little more time at the end of the orientation for a meet and greet opportunity.
The overall Spain and CIEE Experience:
Participating in CIEE’s program has undoubtedly been one of the best decisions I have made in my life. I found the Spanish people to be extremely friendly, hospitable, and patient. As someone who did not know but one or two words of Spanish prior to arrival, it was truly refreshing to find so many people willing to help me even when they themselves did not speak English. I could not have wished for a more compatible host family—they reminded me so much of my own that we had no issues getting along. The wife was a teacher at my assigned school and spoke fluent English but her husband only spoke Portuguese and Spanish. However, over the three months that I was there, the husband and I learned to understand each other very well even though we couldn’t speak complete sentences. By using only a few context words, we knew what each other was trying to articulate. If you believe in telepathy, than this was it at its finest.
I could write a novel about my experiences in Spain and how great the culture is but you can find much of that information readily available by doing a quick Google search. If there is one phrase that I feel best captures Spain and its culture, it’s that Less is More. They do care about their fashion (as is typical amongst Europeans) but they also know how to appreciate and enjoy and take advantage of the simple pleasures in life. The Spanish Siesta is greatly exaggerated concept here in America. Yes, many places do shut down for lunch (more prevalent in smaller villages than large tourist destinations) but not everyone goes home to take a 2-hour nap. While processed food exists and is readily available, I found that much of the food I ate in Spain did not contain all of the additive ingredients as American foods—chicken was actual chicken and not compressed chicken parts to look like a chicken breast. BUT I also live in a small village where most of the food was grown fresh (also without as many chemicals/pesticides). It is very safe country compared to the United States. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, I personally spoke with questioned me about America’s obsession with owning and carrying guns. Spaniards and other Europeans simply don’t understand our obsession with carrying guns. It’s not that gin violence and homicides don’t happen in Spain but they are nowhere near as prevalent and glorified by the media as they are in the U.S.
BOTTOM LINE: Keep an open-mind and always be aware and alert of your surroundings. You don’t need to be nervous, just cognizant of what is happening around you—as you should always be anyways no matter where in the world you are located or activity you are doing.