I went through the 2-week immersion program, so my first few weeks in Spain were filled with orientation schedules, host family obligations and a general frenzy. Once finished with orientation, I had to sort out my rusty Spanish, my apartment, my roommates, my school, my transportation, and my routine – amidst on onslaught of cultural shocks and new sights. But with the foundation and the tools that CIEE provided me, I felt more prepared to face those challenges and knew that I had a support system to combat any issues I couldn't handle on my own. Over the course of the year, CIEE offered us private lesson opportunities, monthly newsletters, a frequently updated forum, and contests to keep us involved. Not only that, but my fellow CIEE participants were the people who became my closest friends in Spain. CIEE grouped us by region during orientation, so the friends that I made in the first couple of weeks were close by enough to visit and travel with.
On a day to day basis, I struggled with your typical abroad challenges, one of them being the language. The accent and colloquialisms in southern Spain are different than anywhere in the world, thus posing a major challenge to my application of the bit of Spanish that I came in with. I did learn Spanish (poco a poco) in the classroom, but I was supposed to speak only English to the kids, which definitely limited my speaking. I tended to stick to the same verbs and vocab when conversing, which meant that I didn't improve my skills as much as I hoped. If I had put more time and money into Spanish lessons, I might have seen more of a difference, but perhaps CIEE could have facilitated online Spanish classes or weekly lessons or webinar discussions about our setbacks with Spanish. They did a great job at the start of the year setting us up with Clic, host families, and Spanish-basics, but if they carried that throughout the year, my Spanish would have been better off.
I also could have benefited from a more organized CouchSurfer-like CIEE community. The Facebook forums were a good place to start, and often helpful with questions, but it would have been nice to have a more developed travel network of peers that were trustworthy and in the same boat. After all, we only worked 12 hours a week, so we had plenty of free time to travel. Each city/town could have a very specific CIEE travel guide (like the TripAdvisor .pdfs, but aimed at 20-something-year-olds) that highlighted the actual MUST-sees of places, 3-day itineraries, CIEE-beloved restaurants, favorite nightspots, best neighborhoods to visit, best tapas to try, what hostels to go to (if there are no CIEE hosts available), where to fly in/what transport to take, and budget finds. I would have loved that and definitely offered my own couch and tips for travelers visiting Cadiz!
All in all, by the end of the year, I was thriving. I had mastered enough Spanish to live and work in Spain. I appreciated and enjoyed every minute with my students, roommates, and any Spaniards I could befriend. I know the CIEE was a good choice for me, because I didn't have confidence going into the year, but with their help, I was able to make the most of my experience (so much so that I applied and was accepted for a second year of teaching in Spain!). I hope that anyone considering CIEE decides to go through them -- I wholeheartedly recommend them.