Friday, June 13, 2014

As a kid, there were some things that I just put out of my mind. If I stumbled upon an expensive dress, I adverted my gaze. When friends asked if I wanted to go out for a meal, I told them I had other plans. I didn’t avoid these things to receive pity or solicit any type of charity; I simply understood my family’s financial situation, and that was that. Due partly to my parent’s way of openly discussing financial issues with me, I was a pragmatic child. There was a mortgage to pay and groceries to buy, my whims could wait. There was one fantasy I couldn’t shake, though. As I so fervently told my mother again and again, “I want to understand how as many people as possible on Earth live their daily lives!” Ah, yes, to me travel has always been about the people I would find in each unique place. When I day-dreamt about my future exploits I was never in a given place for less than a month. No, no, two weeks would not allow me to thoroughly get to know and understand all of the beautiful, quirky people I had envisaged. Once I had decided that I simply had to stay in these foreign locations for a longer period of time, I decided studying abroad was my solution. Beginning at about age 14 I began drafting my plans to realize my dream of studying abroad during college. Now, how just how was I going to pay for it…

I’ll let you in on a secret: I thought studying abroad was reserved for people with money. Or people with parents with money. As it turned out, one only needs to apply a bit of elbow grease and do some research to be launched from low-income home to an undefined destination half way across the world. I will say, however, my journey would have been much simpler had I followed some sort of guide, or mentor, or...something. Alas, that is why I am writing! To record on the interwebs forever a step-by-step guide for a low-resource student from the University of Iowa (applications could be made to other universities) to experience the joys and wonder of studying in another land, without having to live on rice and beans while abroad and/or taking on thousands of dollars in (additional) student debt.

1. Choose a destination. I know, this seems obvious, but there is more that goes into than you may think. If you have limited U.S. dollars to spend, it is important to think about how far your U.S. dollars will take you in a given country. Now, I went to Europe AND to one of the more expensive cities in Europe, Bilbao, Spain, and still pulled it off. Just note that if you want your money to go a long way, it may be a good idea to spend your semester or year in a place where the U.S. dollar is worth more than local currency.

That being said, the most important part of choosing a destination city is to select a country, city, and university that aligns with your personal and professional goals. Basically, think about what you are looking to get out of an experience, and what place is best suited to meet those expectations. For me, I knew I wanted to gain fluency in Spanish, explore parts of Europe, and live in a place very different from Iowa. In terms of place, Bilbao offered everything I needed. I could practice my Spanish daily with the locals and my host family, I was located very close to the French border and therefore had easy access to other parts of Europe, and my home was a few blocks from a beautiful beach serving as a constant reminder that I certainly wasn’t in Iowa anymore.

The best way to begin narrowing down destination options is to visit the University of Iowa Office of Study Abroad. The office is located at 1111 University Capitol Centre in the Old Capitol Mall on Clinton St. Simply enter through the North entrance, take a right passed Cookies N’ More, go through the double glass doors and look for the office. If you have never visited the study abroad office, your first visit will be spent in a large room filled with informational books about various study abroad programs and destinations. The books are organized on shelves by continent, and student advisors are available to sit down and chat with you about all of your possibilities. All of the employees have studied abroad with the University and are excited to help you choose your adventure. Usually, students are welcome to take informational brochures and books home with them to spend more time researching options after this initial appointment. If, by the end of this meeting you have chosen a region of the world in which you wish to study, you can make an advising appointment with the study abroad advisor for that area.

Now, you may wonder when this entire process should start. In my opinion, the earlier the better. It is wise to get a general idea of the full cost of the program as soon as possible so that you may begin exploring your funding options. I began looking at programs over a year before I departed for Spain and found that I had ample time to write scholarship essays and plan financially.

2. Choose a program. Now that you have chosen the city or town in which you wish to study, it is time to choose which program you’d like to work through to have the best experience possible. In terms of making the transfer of credits from a foreign university more seamless, I recommend studying with a program that works directly with the University of Iowa for credit allotment. I choose United Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) and had no problems with the transfer of my credits. This is an important issue to bring up with your study abroad advisor. These advisors are a wonderful resource as they have had to deal with awarding foreign credits to students that study abroad in the past. For this reason, they understand which programs make that process easier and which programs make it more difficult.

A second crucial thing to consider is the total cost of the program. When comparing cost, be sure to figure in an estimated cost for airfare as it is almost never included in program fees. Additionally, do not discount the more expensive option right away. Take time to consider whether or not food, room and board are included in the fees. Also, take a moment to think about whether you’d like to live with a host family from the destination country, or take up residence in an apartment with other students. Usually, when living with a host family three meals a day are included whereas in an apartment students are responsible for purchasing their own food. Be realistic with yourself about how much money you think you would spend on groceries vs eating out if you were to live alone. If you think you’d be likely to spend a large amount of money at restaurants, living with a host family is probably a more savvy economic move.

3. Scholarships, scholarships, scholarships. Here is where the fun begins! Before beginning the application process, you must find out about all of the scholarships you can and choose those for which you are best suited. A good place to start is asking your study abroad advisor about scholarships the University of Iowa offers (there are a lot) and about reliable websites with links to more possible scholarships. There are many University scholarships that are specific to various regions and countries, as well as the Diversity Ambassador, Merit-based, and Need-based scholarships. Any student studying abroad can apply for these and as a student of limited means, you may have a good chance of being selected for the diversity or need-based scholarships. Next, make sure to utilize the scholarship resources your advisor has given to you, and start their applications as soon as you can to be sure to turn in a quality application.

4. Do the Gilman. I was turned on to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program by my study abroad advisor, and I decided to take a risk. To apply, you can make an account here and follow the easy steps: are many parts to the Gilman application so again: START EARLY. You want to give yourself the best chance of being selected and in order to do that, you must turn in your best work. The work that best represents you. Honestly. To me, the most important parts of this application are the written pieces. Remember, the selection committee has no idea who you are. You must do your best to pour your spirit onto paper because that is all they have to go off of. If you are unsure of your writing and have allowed enough time, be sure to utilize the University of Iowa Writing Center. You can submit works or make appointments here: Now, this is a resource, not an easy way out. Tutors will offer suggestions, but it is your responsibility to develop content and compose the best works possible.

Speaking of content, remember to value yourself in your statements of purpose or other written portions of scholarship applications. Think critically about not only what you have to gain from an international learning experience, but what you have to offer a given program or place. Understand that your background and experiences are unique, and that is valuable. Write honestly about where you come from and how that can ultimately benefit others. You must explain candidly why you deserve the opportunity to see the world and understand other cultures. Do not be discouraged by lengthy applications or a large applicant pool. Believe that you are a strong candidate and allow that to show in your writing. Applications are not the time to be humble, remember that.

5. While you’re abroad. So, you’ve got your scholarships and you’ve made the leap: You’re abroad! There are a few money-saving tips I’d like to offer. First of all, street food is where it’s at. There are tons of street vendors in most cities selling cheap, delicious food. If you’re eating out of the house, this is a thrifty way to eat what the locals do, and trust me, it’s delicious! Next, book your flights early. If you’re planning to do any traveling while you’re abroad try to plan out when you’re going ahead of time and buy tickets then. This is usually how you’ll get the best prices be it plane or train. Third, carry a card with current U.S. dollar to local currency conversion rates on it. This is especially useful in countries where the U.S. dollar is worth less. Don’t let your money sneak away from you because you forgot to consider conversion rates! Finally, don’t worry about shopping. Some of the people in your program may be more wealthy than you and will spend oodles of money buying clothes, gadgets, etc. Remember that material items will eventually fail you, but you’ll always have the memories you’ve made while abroad. Don’t waste money on material goods if it means you’ll miss out on a trip or a cultural experience! Finally, be sure to withdraw money from your U.S. banking account in large amounts to avoid a large amount of service charges. It is best to withdraw about $500 at a time, leaving most of it in a secure location and carrying a small amount with you. Withdrawing large amounts of cash will decrease the frequency in which service charges are applied.

In review, the most important thing to remember throughout this entire process is to take a risk. Do not operate under the assumption that only the wealthy can afford to travel. There are people and organizations, like the Gilman foundation, that want to see you live your dreams. We are fortunate enough to live in a country and attend a University that don’t forget about those with fewer economic resources. If you are a hard-working student, chances are someone wants to see you go abroad, and you deserve it! Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds weave diversity into study abroad cohorts, projecting a different view of the American student to foreign citizens. Indeed, not only is is possible for us to work hard and have our studies abroad funded, it is beneficial to global citizens. Just as we are learning about the splendid, diverse ways of the world, we are enriching and shaking up the common conceptions of tourists from the United States. Just as we owe it to the cultures of the world to explore their ways of life, we also owe them a more honest picture of the social fabric of the United States.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Boarder Hoppin'

I'm going to start dedicating my blog posts to my father. Every single one of them. The man wakes up every morning at 6 am, and immediately sits down at the computer to check if I have written anything during the 6-8 hours he was asleep. That is dedication, and also love. So this is for you, pops:

Let's see, what's new? A few weeks ago I began teaching english to two little girls during the week. I've spent no more than 10 hours working with each of them one-on-one, and I am already impressed by the mental capacity these little fireballs posses. Maybe I'm easily impressed, but the 5 year old is fluent in Spanish, French, and Basque. She has no experience with English, but she's catching on quickly. I began by reading her stories that she was already familiar with in languages she knows, The 3 Little Bigs, The 3 Bears, you get the idea. Anyway, from there we moved to learning nouns that are more less similar in French...There are more than you might think: blue, cat, etc. She's made tremendous progress, and I am very proud of her. The second chica is 8, Ines attends a German school, speaks Spanish/Basque with her parents, and is also fluent in French as well as English. I understand it is not uncommon to know several languages here, but this little girl retains information with unprecedented ease. Therefore, keeping her challenged has been a challenge for me. We have a test every week, and she is in the middle of writing four short stories in English. I have enjoyed sharing my language more than any job I've ever had. Did I mention I get paid? What?

Last Friday my friends and I left for a trip to France and San Sebastian, Spain! By about 11 am on Saturday we were in St. Jean de Luz, France. A smallish vacation, coastal city right on the boarder between France and Spain. Its beaches and marinas were positively beautiful. There was a market going on Saturday morning as well; we had a blast exploring each vendor's booth. Also, the cheese...I have never seen such massive blocks of cheese in my life! I have also never cursed my lactose intolerance more. Alas, I indulged a little. Some things are worth a little digestional discomfort. The most humbling thing about my hours in France was how completely clueless and helpless I felt not knowing a lick of French. My brain understood I was in a foreign place...My survival instinct was to speak and respond when spoken to in Spanish. You can imagine the awkward masterpieces that created. Their eyes said it all, "Who is this strange blonde woman trying to speak bastardized Spanish to France?" I learned my lesson quickly.

French street artists are actually a thing that exists.

Later that day we made our way back to boat! That's right, we crossed back into beloved España in a boat floating on the ocean. It was surreal. We arrived in San Sebastian by late afternoon and checked into our hotel (Hotel Codina, it was great should you ever visit!) and took a tiny siesta. That night we explored the city and settled at a cider house for dinner and drinks. Cider is huge in San Sebastian and the surrounding area, I now understand why. I paid 5 euros for unlimited cider that shot out of huge wooden barrels just like the movies. Obviously, we stayed there the entire night, getting drunk on cider, eating too much bread, and laughing inappropriately loudly. Time slipped away, it was the first time I'd been intoxicated in quite some time, and let me tell you: the situation was ideal. My friends and I enjoyed learning about each other and shooting the breeze. The next morning we hiked to the top of a mountain that boasts the coveted Jesus statue of San Sebastian. I've never made so many jokes about finding God in my whole life. After our hike, we visited the city's aquarium and spent the afternoon exploring the old part of town. 

That night we rode back to Bilbao as we had plans for Sunday: Hike the notorious Bosque de Oma! Yes, the painted forest you are about get a sneak peak off is only about 40 minutes by car from my apartment. My host parents drove Damaris and I there on Sunday morning. It is a small section of forest in the mountains near Gernika that was painted by a single Basque artist, Augustin Ibarrola, about 10 years ago. Now art students from a local university come every so often to touch up his work. The trees are painted in such a way that when standing in 30 marked vantage points, the trees together form different pictures and designs. It was like something from my dreams. If you know me well, you know that. 

That's all for now, but this weekend I am traveling to Paris. Expect at LEAST one entry from that trip. All my love. -Jenna

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Changing Thoughts

I fear my updates have been becoming more and more infrequent, but you must understand, staring at a computer screen is the last thing this woman wants to do with her precious time in Spain. However, it's raining cats and dogs this morning and I could use some time hanging out with the English language. It's hilarious how quickly I'm beginning to forget how to properly spell words in English. Spanish has invaded my brain and is setting up camp. I can't say I'm mad about it. That being said, I hereby apologize for any spelling and/or grammatical errors past and future posts likely contain. Sorry, but proofreading will never be a thing on my blog. I got stuff to do, man.

It has been weeks since I last wrote. I tried to come up with an adequate synopsis for today's entry and nearly had an anxiety attack, therefore, I will choose my favorite anecdotes and recite them in no particular order.

Last Friday Damaris, my host parents, and I loaded up the car after class to venture to my host mom's family home in La Rioja. The entire drive there Angeles was reminding us repeatedly that it was definitely NOT a new house and definitely NOT a big house. We kept reassuring her that these were the reasons we were so excited to stay there. We were not disappointed. The house where her mother grew up is in a town with about 10 other houses. It's painted a rosy pink and adorned with grape vines. It has 4 levels and 5 bedrooms, but my favorite room was the basement. Angeles explained to us that it was previously a sleeping room for cows, now it's remodeled as a dining room that has kept its rustic charm. During our weekend we explored 4 towns in La Rioja, there is way too much to tell so I'll give you the basics: we purchased chorizo from the motherland of chorizo, we drank wine from bodegas (wine cellars) that were built into mountain caves, we explored the monastery where the first ever Spanish words were written. Each was an incredible experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, but the most amazing things are the people that gave me these life changing moments. Without my host parents and their awe-inspiring generosity and sense of adventure, I would be without every single one of these I-can't-believe-this-is-my-life moments.
Chorizo motherland

The monastery 

Some of the first words ever written in old Spanish

Cooking up our meat in the cow room, talk about being close to your food. 

So far this weekend I've gone out with two groups of locals. Do you know how much Spanish practice that amounts to? A lot. Especially when wine is involved, you can't get me to shut up once I've got a little booze pumping in my veins. Score 2 for Jenna! Thanks to them I finally know the area of town where all of the young people go out. 

Saturday Damaris and I went to a town on the coast about 45 minutes away that has THE most beautiful rocky bridge built out to an island. The connection was initially constructed in the 1700's in order for the outlying island to function as a sort of look out for Spain. The guards watch the sea to the north for English and French invaders, if they saw a ship coming they'd ring the bell 3 times to warn their people. Now it is customary to climb to the top and ring the bell 3 times for good luck. The hike began in the forest near the coast and ends at the summit of the island. It was the most beautiful and peaceful place I have ever been. 

I'll wrap this entry up with a list of differences I've noticed here that may or may not surprise you:
1. The nightlife schedule is quite different: If you leave for the bars before 10 you're kind of a weirdo, and if you come home before 3 you're kind of a prude. I am both of those things most nights. 
2. The dogs of Spain are either robots or have superpowers. Everyone has a dog, no one has a leash. Every, single dog (big or small) follows her owner obediently. Have to go in a cafe/store? No problem. Super-dog sits down by the door and waits patiently until you're done. It's the damnedest thing. 
3. Cussing isn't a big deal here, in fact, swear words are more often called "ugly words" in Spanish. It is not uncommon for my parents, professors, and children to drop f-bombs. The words simply don't carry such a strong negative connotation here. 
4. Baguettes have their own food group. Everyone really is constantly carrying around a fresh loaf of bread during the day. Every tapa, no matter the type, is served on bread. It's a vehicle for virtually every other food. I'm not complaining. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Weekend of Epic Shenanigans

Greetings and love from Spain my friends and family!

It has been over a week since I wrote last, but I swear I've been busy doing other things much more exciting than updating my blog. So I hope you'll forgive me. In fact, the only reason I've decided to update now is because I'm putting-off studying for the exam I have this Thursday. :)

My weeks have been spinning by, each day filled with classes, delicious meals, and an adventure of some capacity. I am learning and discovering at a rate I never have before, and it is incredibly invigorating. The past weekend was particularly notable so I'll describe it more detail beginning with Friday.

Most Fridays after class our program faculty takes us on an adventure of some sort. This Friday we took the metro to the most Northern part of Getxo where we found ourselves at the foot of a mountain called Serantes. Beginning at 2 pm, we hiked up that bad boy for toy hours, chatting and getting to know one another along the way. The sights were breathtaking, and the weather was deliciously pleasant. Upon reaching the top we gathered for a picnic lunch before making our way back down.

That night I met some friends on the beach near my house to watch the sunset and enjoy some drinks. We sat in the sand and talked for about three hours before heading to downtown Bilbao for more festivities. It was a lovely night, but if we're being honest, I still can't keep up with the Spaniards. These people are impervious to alcohol, do not need sleep, and possess a strange hangover immunity. For those of you who know me well, you understand that I am somewhat of an elderly woman in these respects. Fitting in has been a challenge, to put it lightly.

The next morn' I was up bright and early to enjoy lunch at my host aunt's house about an hour away. She and her husband live in a big, beautiful Spanish-style home on acres of land with a fruitful and gorgeous garden to show for it. In fact, this is where my host mom sources most of the veggies for my meals during the week. We cooked together, worked in the garden a little, and then enjoyed a hearty feast of shrimp, iberico ham, salad, fresh bread, and steak cooked over their fireplace. I was introduced to my host aunt and uncle, cousin and her boyfriend. Everyone was incredibly kind and warm, I even got to Skype with my other host cousin that is working in Vienna currently. 

The next day I was invited to attend a wine tasting excursion with my friend Annie and her host mother in the Rioja region of Spain. You may not be familiar with Rioja, but if you've ever had a decent wine from Spain, it probably came from a vineyard in Rioja. We left Getxo around 9 am with a bus of about forty 50+ year old Spaniards. The next portion of my day will go down in history as my most embarrassing moment. Ever. Let me preface this story by saying that I consumed copious amounts of coffee and orange juice with breakfast this Saturday and that I also did not use the restroom before leaving the house. Rookie mistake, I know. Anyway, the ride to Rioja was well over an hour long and about 20 minutes in I had to pee, like really badly. I was a big girl for the next 40 minutes or so but knowing that public restrooms are rarer than gold in Spain, I knew I had to speak up. About 10 minutes away from our destination the bus driver pulled over, Annie's host mom led me out to a grassy knoll, and told me to squat. Mind you, this was a huge festival and there was a line of cars behind me...just watching. I awkwardly started at her, repeating "no," thankfully this word is the same in Spanish. However, she was persistent and made me feel like an alien for thinking twice about such an act. Just then Annie came to my rescue with an umbrella that she used to cover my lady parts while I did the deed. I then boarded the bus where forty 50+ year old Spaniards broke out into a congratulatory applause after which I returned to my seat and died. 

After that business was behind me, we headed onward to the Rioja Wine Festival! The festival opened with a boy and girl from each region of Rioja carrying a bucket of grapes from their vineyard and adding it to a single large bucket. After each region had added their grapes, a selected couple smashed them with their feet. The wine was then served to the crowd. It was a beautiful ceremony. 

After trying three wines at the festival while listening to traditional Basque music and watching Basque dances we boarded the bus again and headed to lunch at a nearby restaurant. There were courses upon courses of delectable Spanish food grown and processed locally. Of course the wine was every-flowing, and the conversation vibrant and lively. Annie and I did our best to keep up with our Spanish-speaking friends, but our brains were fried at the end of our 12 hour day. After dining, we visited a beautiful medieval town with oodles of charming shops, cafes, and homes. 

Without a doubt, Sunday was an experience like I've never had before and am not likely to have again. It was so amazing to learn about and share in the Basque culture than has been suppressed so intensely over the course of the last century. Watching the Basque people sing their songs and speak their language freely was so moving. It's moments like these that restore my faith in progress and equality. Life keeps swimming along here, and I am brought to life each morning with intense gratitude. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Surfer from Iowa

Hello loved ones,

It's been a few days. I think it's about time I post a new entry. I'd hate for you to think I've been up to absolutely nothing! The truth is, I've been quite busy. Ever since I've meet all the students in my program and started classes, my schedule has gotten much more packed-in the best way. As it has been awhile, I will not attempt to summarize all that I've been doing, but pick out some of the highlights instead. Let's see...

The first night I got here my host parents took me out for pintxos (tapas) and drinks. We went to like three different restaurants so they could show me around our city in the process, and let me tell you: this place is phenomenal. Just four blocks from my house is a the incredible Getxo coastline, it is lined with gorgeous green bluffs (most with their own hiking/biking trails) and tons of beautiful beaches down below.

Allow me to offer some insight about the heaven pictured above. Those photos were taken in Algorta, a neighborhood of the city where my apartment is: Algorta. However, my university is in Bilbao, a slightly larger city about 15 minutes inland by car. Bilbao is known as the wealthiest city in Spain and the 3rd safest city in Europe. The Nervón River cuts it down the middle into a old and new side, the river flows into the Bay of Biscay (pictured above). Bilbao was a lower-middle class industrial city until 1975 when Franco's regime fell. When democracy began to spread throughout Spain, the city began its rather quick transition into a financial center and conglomerate of world renowned architecture. The director of our program showed us this video, I think it tells the story pretty well. 

Thankfully we also started class last week as this girl was itching to do some learning. Our program directors and faculty have been amazing so far. They have been accommodating in every way. My professors are kind and patient, but also run a tight ship. Tardiness is not accepted and there is quite a workload for each of my classes. I appreciate this as I am here to be challenge and to grow. At least once a week our faculty members take us on some kind of cultural visit. After our second day of orientation we walked around the financial district of Bilbao and also saw the regenerated area of the city where the Guggenheim now is. 

I've also started surfing! I'm able to go as much as I'd like under mid-October when surf season ends and believe me, I'm taking full advantage of it. I've been like five times in the last week, and I still want more. It's such an awesome hobby. I've learned so much about the ocean and how to work with it, as well as the limits and positioning of my own body. Surfing was actually introduced to Europe in Gexto during the 60s so theres a pretty intense surfing culture. My instructor has been so effective. Most lessons I get one on one attention and very close to it. I was standing on my board after 1 lesson! This guy is good. Best part of all? There are NO sizable sharks here, they are like 2 feet tops. Phew. Best, best part of all? I have an excuse to hang out here five days a week:

My Spanish is coming along quite quickly as my host parents do not speak english. I can't wait to see how much I can learn over the next 3 months. The possibilities are exciting. I am learning, I am understanding, and I am truly, truly happy here. That's all we can ask, right?

More later, thats all for now!