Emelie Vega - 2011 Program Participant

The Iberdrola Tower in Bilbao, Spain.
The Iberdrola Tower in Bilbao, Spain. Photo by Emelie Vega

How did you decide upon ISA’s program in Bilbao for study abroad?

Back in high school, I spent ten days in Bilbao on a student exchange program. Since then it had always been in my heart to travel back to that city, so when I decided to look into studying abroad in college, I opted to look for a program that would allow me the opportunity to live in Bilbao. ISA offers a variety of program terms (academic year, summer, semester, month, and so on). I was attending a liberal arts college at the time, so when I noticed that ISA Bilbao had a language and liberal arts program, I knew I found what I was looking for. The people at ISA were very informative when I called to ask questions. They helped prepare me for my semester abroad by providing reading materials about the cultural transition I would be experiencing, which is a major aspect of studying abroad and one of the things everyone needs to be fully aware of before heading out. 

You graduated from Roberts Wesleyan College, what advice do you have for students from your alma mater who are thinking about studying in Bilbao?

Don’t be discouraged if the school doesn’t offer a program in the country or city of your choice; people in the study abroad office will help you navigate through another program’s sites and find out if the credits from them will transfer to your transcript.

People joke around about the “Roberts bubble” because the college is very much like a small community, but don’t let that hinder you from stepping out and exploring a place where you are not surrounded by Roberts students. When I went to Bilbao, I was one of three students in the ISA group that hails from the East Coast. Being surrounded by complete strangers will seem scary at first, but you’ll soon realize that you are sharing an experience with other students who are just as nervous and excited as you are. The bonds you form during your time abroad will be strong. 

What did you like most about studying in Bilbao specifically?

Contrary to popular belief, Spain is not all about bullfighting and flamenco. Every city in 

Spain has a rich history, but Bilbao provides the experience of two cultures: Spanish and Euskara. Being the largest city of the Basque country, Bilbao definitely carries the feel of an old yet modern environment that is saturated in a well-blended dual identity of urban Spain.

Bilbao has a reliable transportation system, a beautiful riverside walkway, intriguing architecture (Guggenheim Museum, anyone?), and the city center is just a few metro stops away from a handful of beaches. I don’t mean to downplay any of the other awesome cities in Spain when I say that studying abroad in a smaller city like Bilbao carries the added benefit of not being a face lost in a crowd of students.

At the airport on my way back home from my semester abroad, I came across other Americans who had spent a semester in Madrid and while we were exchanging stories, they told me of how they were part of a group of 120 students. Our Bilbao group consisted of 28 students and I wouldn’t want to trade that intimacy.

What class was your favorite during your study abroad program in Spain?

My favorite class was a tie between both Cultural courses offered to the international students at the University of Deusto (the college ISA Bilbao students attend): one was on Basque culture and language and the other was on the culture and politics in contemporary Spanish society. It is important to be informed of the culture while studying abroad because you gain a better understanding of the “what” and “why” of the environment around you. I learned so much in those classes and I enjoyed the fact that they were taught in Spanish by locals. The reading materials, videos, and projects for the courses helped me to appreciate the Basque country in Spain.

How has study abroad impacted your life?

My semester abroad has made me aware that the world is much bigger than I had originally thought. I feel as if it has also taught me to become more self-aware, and I would be a completely different person now if I hadn’t chosen to leave my comfort zone. There is nothing like the satisfying feeling of travelling, embracing, and immersing yourself in another culture. I met people from many different countries and enhanced my knowledge of Castilian Spanish (I was raised bilingual, Spanish and English). Studying abroad has made me braver in the sense that I am not afraid to leave my comfort zone and it has awoken in me wanderlust.

I enjoyed studying abroad so much that I went and got my Masters Degree in another country and now have friends from all over the world whom I can go visit. There are many places that I would like to see and my ultimate dream is to relocate to Spain. Whenever I come across a college student, I always recommend that they study abroad because it is an experience unlike any other. Choosing to study abroad has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.