Matthew Williams - 2014 Program Participant

Aerial view of San Sebastian, Spain

During an afternoon free time, some students took the challenge of climbing Monte Urgull, with the priceless reward of a stunning aerial view of the city. 

Why did you choose to study abroad?

Ever since I started studying the Spanish language and culture in middle school, I've adopted the lifelong goal of fluency in the foreign tongue. There's a long-told joke: "Who's a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Who's a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Who's a person who speaks one language? American." However, I want to be one of those people who strives to break this stereotype. I want to be able to communicate across borders, cultures, and ethnic groups. I want to escape the bubble of the U.S. and expand my perspective on a global scale.

With this dream in consideration, I looked for fun, effective methods of accomplishing this goal, and I found SPI Study Abroad through my high school Spanish teacher. She recommended studying abroad as one of the best ways to learn a language with complete cultural immersion. So, I took the leap and signed up for my stay in San Sebastián!

American student with his Spanish homestay mother

Matt with his welcoming and warm-hearted homestay mother María

What were your housing arrangements like in San Sebastián? What did you like best about your accommodation?
I lived with three other guys in a considerably large room of an apartment that sat about three blocks away from the language school and four blocks away from the beach, which could not have been more ideal. My homestay mom, Señora María, was one of the nicest, most accommodating, caring individuals I have ever met. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to live with her for two weeks.

The best part of the homestay experience was definitely the building of a relationship with a local of San Sebastián. María would ask us how our day was after school each day, offer ideas of how to spend our free time, give advice on perfecting our accents, suggest incredible restaurants and cafés to try, and so much more. Being able to forge that kind of relationship in only two weeks between two people from different countries, cultures, and languages is truly a miracle that cannot occur anywhere but on a study abroad program in my opinion.

What was a normal day like as a high school student in San Sebastián?

A normal day would consist of waking up and going to school at about 9 a.m. After a couple hours of school, we would get a half hour break during which we could grab a snack or drink at a local café down the street, or socialize with our new friends outside. Then, we would finish our classes out for the day at around 1 p.m.

After this, I would have free time for several hours. My homestay would typically pack me a sack lunch with a baguette and fruit in it that I would eat on the beach with my roommates. We would usually then go swimming and bodysurfing in the ocean with friends for a few hours. Sometimes we would go shopping, grab a gelato, or even climb a small mountain during this time. The options were truly limitless in San Sebastián.

At 4 p.m., the whole group would get together and do an activity around town or sometimes take an excursion to a nearby town. Then, we would sometimes have a little more free time that we could spend with friends, but generally, we would go home to shower and freshen up before eating dinner with our homestay. After that, I would either stay home for the night and talk with María about miscellaneous topics of the city and culture, or go back out to the city to get gelato with friends or hang out around the Main Street of the city and experience the glowing nightlife of San Sebastián. Then, we would head home, and the cycle starts over with another unforgettable day of studying abroad!

What was the most memorable experience you had while studying abroad?

I'm a major "outdoorsy" kind of person, so going to the beach and hanging out outside were big perks of going to San Sebastián. Therefore, the afternoons of surfing lessons were arguably the most memorable experiences of the program (only arguably because there are so many different activities that are competing for the top spot here! I could list plenty no doubt!). Watching from my board, bobbing in the swelling waves of the ocean, cheering as each and every one of my friends conquered the sport, standing up countless times throughout the afternoon, I had one of the greatest times of my life. The exhilarating pulse of adrenaline that comes with riding a wave is truly indescribable and undoubtedly unforgettable. 

Surfers in Spain

Matt, and the students who chose to surf, grabbed a quick photo with their "wicked awesome" surf instructor after an intense afternoon on the water

What was the biggest challenge you faced during your study abroad program?

My biggest challenge while studying abroad was underestimating myself. At the beginning of the trip, I was anxious to order my food at a restaurant for fear of saying the wrong thing or not understanding the waiter. I was terrified of rapid-fire conversation with locals. However, as I actually went about daily living in Spain, I realized that communication is no where near as difficult as I had expected. I just needed to have confidence in myself and my abilities, and communication became a breeze. 

What advice would you give to other high school students interested in studying abroad with SPI Study Abroad? 

My greatest advice is, JUST GO ALREADY! The program was phenomenal, the benefits of the program are infinite, and the experience itself is too great to be missed. However, I have a few words of advice I would give a study abroad high schooler.

First, try new things abroad. You can't truly experience a different culture without branching out from your comfort zone. Spain isn't America, so some things are going to be different, maybe even straight up weird to you. However, you can't judge anything until you have tried it; whether it be a disgusting looking food or an odd custom, you don't need to say, "No, pero gracias," until you've tried at least a bite or participated at least for a little while. I went into the program scared that the food would be nasty in Spain, and in all honesty, the food looks quite different from American cuisine. However, I tried everything that was set before me and found some of my favorite foods of all time to be indigenous to the Basque Provinces.

Second, I would suggest ordering a Spanish cell phone for the trip. I had a small, plastic BLU phone that could make calls in Spain, and it was a lifesaver on multiple occasions. Without cellular functions for your regular phone, it's often difficult to coordinate anything during the trip with friends, teachers, or others, unless they are talking to you face to face. 

Hiking near the coast in Spain

Matt and several of his close friends from the trip standing above awe-inspiring rock formations during one of the many excursions planned during the program

What makes San Sebastián such a great place to study abroad?

I fell in love with San Sebastián by the time I left. The city itself is stunningly beautiful, and it is one of the safest cities I have ever visited (also rated one of the safest cities online on travel sites). The school that we attended was incredible with its teachers, activities, and lessons. As I mentioned before, there are countless things to do in the city, so getting bored simply isn't an option in San Sebastián. This was a major perk for me in choosing a city to study abroad in, since school only lasts for the morning portion of the day.

How has studying abroad impacted your life back at home?

As college is rapidly approaching, I have been forced to begin thinking about possible career paths for my future. Before the trip, I was planning on majoring in a pre-med study only, and focusing on the sciences as my primary field of expertise. However, after studying in Spain, I discovered that knowing Spanish is not just a party trick or a check off of my bucket list. Being bilingual is a huge skill in a growing, changing world. Through my experiences with studying abroad, I have decided to at least minor in Spanish language during my undergraduate education, and hopefully I can strategically position myself to live in a region that uses the language on a daily basis.

Would you recommend your SPI Study Abroad program to others?

Of course, I would recommend SPI Study Abroad's program to others! This program changed my life without a doubt. It opened my eyes to other cultures and cleaned my conversational and spoken Spanish skills up to levels I had never expected.

This program introduced me to great friends, who I will cherish forever, and a passion for the Spanish language that burns now like it never has before.