Zach Stoebner - 2014 Program Participant

The Running of the Bulls statue in Pamplona, Spain

Zach in Pamplona at the Running of the Bulls

Why did you choose to study abroad? 

I chose to study abroad because I love to travel and experience different places and things. Immersing myself in a culture that I didn’t know a great deal about seemed like a good way to accomplish that goal.

What made you choose San Sebastian, Spain?

Considering I’d taken Spanish courses at my school for the four years prior to my trip to San Sebastian, a study abroad trip to Spain seemed like a program that would benefit me in future academic endeavors. Moreover, I’d heard Spain was an astounding place to visit and that someone should venture there at least once in his or her lifetime; so I thought, “Why not now?”

Why did you select SPI Study Abroad over other high school study abroad organizations?

I selected SPI Study Abroad over other high school study abroad organizations because it was advertised at my school very well. My friends who had done SPI programs the previous year spoke highly of their experiences and it was the only organization that had a speaker come to my school to answer questions. Thus, it was the only organization that I had more information about than that what was available on a website.

SPI Study Abroad students in San Sebastian, Spain

Zach’s class for the fourth and final week in San Sebastian with SPI Study Abroad

What were your housing arrangements like in San Sebastian? What was your favorite part?

The housing arrangements were not only comfortable and representative of Spanish culture, but also incredibly educational. My homestay family was phenomenal and the bulk of what my conversational Spanish is now derived from is what I learned in my conversations with my homestay family.

My favorite part of the homestay experience was how kind, considerate, and accommodating the family was. Every meal of the day, my friend, who roomed with me the first three weeks I was there, and I received a three-course, home-cooked, gourmet meal.

What was a normal day like as an international high school student in Spain?

A normal day in the life of an SPI student in San Sebastian involves getting up around 8 a.m., eating a quality breakfast, chatting with the members of the homestay family that are awake, and walking a good two miles to school (my homestay house was the farthest from the school out of my group, but I was fine with it because an early morning hike in a beautiful city is a reward in and of itself: exercise and spectacular vistas). Then, you go to class from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or 2:00 p.m., meeting other kids from countries all over the world.

After school, you head back to your homestay for a delicious and nutritious lunch (or go to some pre-arranged place to eat with your family, friends, or the SPI group). The afternoon is full of group activities that range from going to art museums to cooking and Zumba lessons. Finally, you head back to your homestay for a great Spanish dinner at about 9 p.m. If plans were made ahead of time, you could go get pintxos and socialize with friends, or just stay home, converse with your homestay family, watch a movie, or watch a FIFA World Cup game that was airing. The days are super healthy and you’ll feel at your best; there were days I was walking thirteen miles total and I felt fit. It was perfect.

View of La Concha and San Sebastian, Spain

La Concha and the area of the city that Zach had learned every back alley of by the time he left

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

My most memorable experience was the day when my friends and I planned to go to La Playa Zurriola. It was very overcast and windy, but we still went, knowing that the waves would be perfect for some bodysurfing. While we were there we bodysurfed in water that was much colder than anticipated, but we had a lot of fun doing it. It may sound simple but that experience was a turning point for my friends and me; we all bonded and realized that we were going to be lifelong friends. To this day, we still keep in touch and remember each other like it was yesterday. I’ve even had the opportunity to visit a few of my Chicagoan friends back at home.

What was the biggest challenge you faced abroad?

The biggest challenge I faced abroad was definitely the language barrier. Yes, language was my most improved quality in the long run and I made leaps and bounds in tearing the barrier down, but the barrier was very tall and wide to begin with.

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

I would advise that they take complete advantage of their time abroad. Their experience is in their hands; they control their emotions toward being inundated in a foreign culture. They can choose to face it head on, overcome the obstacles, and form an incredible experience from it, or they can choose to crumble, complain, and make theirs and everyone else’s experience miserable.

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

What made San Sebastian such a great place to study abroad is that it’s in the Basque country! The city is full of culture and very fun. San Sebastian is also a happening city. The residents are active and outdoorsy, and there is the full gamut of unique activities to do on a Spanish vacation. You really can’t go wrong!

How have your experiences studying abroad impacted your life?

Studying abroad has impacted my life in the sense that my outlook and perspective of the world has been revolutionized. It’s made me realize the value of traveling to different cultures and living in them. Also, that the U.S. is not the only great place to live, nor is it the only country that has interesting and friendly people in it. The U.S. may be a microcosm, but the world is a macrocosm with a plethora of other microcosms waiting to be explored.

Hiking in San Sebastian, Spain

Zach (left) with his friends, Colin Michael and Katie Kimery, posing on the far side of a mountain overlooking the Bay of Biscay

Would you recommend your SPI Study Abroad program to others?

Of course I would recommend my SPI Study Abroad program to others! It provides an experience that is inevitably going to teach them about the way life is lived in other countries, and that is going to be one that they cherish and carry with them for the rest of their lives.

If you could change one thing about your program, what would it be?

If there was one thing I could change about my program, it would be to do more trips to the historic towns, places, and hiking trails that surround San Sebastian. San Sebastian is amazing and the experience would still be incredible if the program solely operated in San Sebastian. But, it would have been nice to venture out, hike, and explore the easily accessible areas outside of the boundaries of the city a little more.

If you could study abroad again, where would you go?

I would go to Brazil because it’s a country with great beaches, like Ipanema, great people, like Adriana Lima, and a great language, Portuguese. I also really want to go hang gliding over Rio de Janeiro.