Orientation and the Golden Fleece (Part one)


On arriving in Madrid and understanding Spain’s visual language

(Our orientation excursions to Segovia, Ávila and Toledo will be featured in part two)


From the moment I arrived at the Madrid airport, I was welcomed into Spain by a sensory overload.

Spain provides sensory experiences for learners of all varieties. For the auditory learners, the streets are filled with dialogue. In Madrid, you can visit any café or bar in a residential neighborhood, and find yourself immersed in the chatter of familiar and not so familiar Castilian phonetics. This total language immersion is equally inspiring as it is overwhelming, and serves as a constant reminder of where I am and why I am here. For the kinesthetic learners, Spain offers the opportunity to touch and interact with history. From major metropolitan areas to medieval hill towns, travelers are invited to explore every landmark, museum, cobble stone alley, or plaza. The opportunity to visit works of art or historical sites, that I had only ever read about in textbooks, provides unforgettable impressions and lessons. And finally, for the visual learners like myself, orientation in Madrid provided an introduction to Spain’s visual language.

Our guide, Gerardo or “Jerry”, took us through museums, palaces, and historic towns. Along the way, he engaged all of us in the tangible history embedded in each stop. We visited the Museo del Prado where Jerry highlighted the works of Spanish master painters. Together, we analyzed works of art and looked for symbolism that linked the piece to its historical context. At the Royal Palace of Madrid, Jerry introduced the symbolism of the golden fleece in heraldry of the Spanish monarchy. While being overwhelmed with ornate decorations and the immense collection of precious objects, our orientation group looked for the symbol of the golden fleece in every room. Each time we found it, we were able to piece together an understanding of the golden fleece in relation to the history of the palace and Spain.

The pure excitement and sensory overload that came with our orientation in Madrid may make my description a little underwhelming. In fact, the iconography of the golden fleece probably seems like a minor detail to most; however, I like to think of it in relationship to my upcoming five months in Spain. Learning about the symbolism of Spain’s visual language was an effort to build a greater understanding or view the bigger picture. Through all sensory experiences, I hope to piece together a comprehensive knowledge of Spanish culture, Spanish history, and most importantly, Spanish language.


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Students Lilli, Natasha and Haley


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Puerta del Sol, a major plaza in Madrid.


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Students Lilli, Natasha and Haley



Plaza de Armeria, courtyard of the Royal Palace, Madrid.


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Royal Palace of Madrid, the largest palace in Europe based off of square footage, has over 3,400 rooms. Photos were not permitted past the grand staircase.


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Jaime Duran (far left), program director, standing with orientation students at the grand stair case in the main entrance of the Royal Palace.


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Jerry, our orientation guide, explaining the symbols of the heraldry.


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Temple students Evelyn, Haley, Lilli, Elaina and Olivia outside of the Royal Palace.


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View of the Gran Via at night.


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Calle Alcalá decorated for the holiday season.


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Cybele Palace, the Town Hall of Madrid.



Orientation group at El Escorial, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, outside of Madrid. The Escorial once functioned as a monastery and a royal palace. The structure is the greatest example of Spanish renaissance architecture.


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The architectural layout imitates a gridiron in reference to the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, its patron saint.


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Photos were not permitted inside of the Escorial; however, I managed to get one shot of renaissance fresco paintings at the main staircase.



Exterior shot of El Escorial.

Walk the Talk, Talk the Walk


After a week of learning about the history of this beautiful nation, visiting ancient castles and cities, and basically living the Princess Diaries dream, our group had formed strong bonds – I suppose that sharing endless baskets of pan (bread) and trying not to get lost along the winding cobblestoned streets of Toledo and Avila will do that to you!  We shared rooms, shared meals, shared stories, and shared some pretty incredible experiences.

And then we got to Oviedo.


I was very excited about making it to campus

Upon our arrival in Oviedo, our group went from existing as a single entity to existing in sixteen very separate, very alone, very individual pieces. We stepped off the bus, grabbed our luggage, met our host families for the first time, and were whisked off with new people to new houses in a new city immersed in what felt like a completely new language. It was terrifying.

Here’s a little secret: stage fright doesn’t just happen on stages. It happens when you’re talking to your host mom for the first time. And the second time. And sometimes the 72nd time! But, if you’re as lucky as I am, you’ll get a second chance. And a third chance. And sometimes a 73rd chance!

That first day was hard. But, like most things in life, it got easier. My host parents were consistently patient, enunciating clearly and using simple explanations and charades to clue me in when I was clearly clueless! My vocabulary expanded from simple nods and repeated utterances of “Sí” to informed expressions and verbal reactions. Slowly but surely, I began to truly learn the Spanish language.

Now, the Spanish language isn’t simply words and grammar and punctuation. It isn’t simply an “¡Hola!” in passing or an “¡Hasta luego!” on your way out the door. It isn’t simply a “¡Vamos a la playa!” or a “Tengo MUCHO hambre.” It is living. It is breathing. And it is everywhere.

To me, the language of Spain is the way its people go about their everyday lives. It is the comfortable walking pace that allows all of your senses to participate in getting you to your destination. It is the time that is taken at meals to enjoy rather than to simply eat. It is the clothing fashion that is not meant to communicate status, rather to communicate the regard one has for oneself. It is the evenings that patiently wait until the sun goes down (which is around 10pm) to begin with dinner and end with laughter. It is the trips after class or work to the beach town of Gijón. It is the trips to the gym. It is the spur of the moment hikes. It is shopping. It is exploring. It is walking through the park not to get somewhere, but just to be there. It is every moment of every day because every single second counts.

Over the past couple of weeks, each one of us has become more familiar with the language of Spain. We have navigated bus stations and grocery stores and host moms and waiters with increasing grace and accuracy (thank God). What’s more, we have begun to find our place in this big little town. We have our cafés, we have our beaches, we have our host families and we have each other. And I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I have a feeling that this adventure is just getting started.

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Castles and Monasteries and Aqueducts, Oh My!


When planning a trip to a new place, one undoubtedly has apprehensions and expectations.  You’re venturing into unknown territory – any number of things could be awaiting you!  Like many before me, I had apprehensions about traveling by myself to a country on the other side of the (very large) pond.  I expected to be flustered, lost, enthralled, distracted…  What I didn’t expect, however, was to be left completely breathless.


View of Plaza de Santa Isabel


First things first: no amount of Google Images searches can prepare you for the breathtaking beauty that is Spain.  While I expected to be wowed, I can honestly say that I didn’t expect to need an inhaler every five seconds due to the architecture, foliage, and natural beauty that waited for me at every corner.  Upon our arrival in Madrid, my jaw found a comfy place about a centimeter from the floor where it would stay for the remainder of the week.



I quickly learned that not only was everything beautiful – everything had history.  From Madrid to San Lorenzo to Ávila to Segovia to Toledo, we were continually surrounded by the rich history that Spain has to offer.  In Madrid, it was the Royal Palace decorated in the Baroque style.  In San Lorenzo, it was the library and gardens and walls of the monastery where monks still live today.  In Ávila, it was the ancient walls that protected its inhabitants in medieval times.  In Segovia, it was the Roman aqueduct that is still standing, as well as the castle that inspired Walt Disney to create the iconic Cinderella’s castle.  In Toledo, it was the cathedral that boasted the marks of various periods, from Gothic to Romanesque to Baroque to Neoclassical.  And everywhere, our incredible guide Gerry reminded us of the art and music and history that weaved each one together.


The gardens of El Escorial


Entryway to Palacio Real in Madrid


Castle of Segovia


The walls of Avila


One of my apprehensions in coming to Spain was how I would relate to people on a completely different continent.  But as Gerry showed us the intricate ornamentation of the baroque Royal Palace, I was reminded of the equally intricate Bach cantatas of the same era that I sang with my choir this past semester.  As a music education major who is constantly surrounded by the music of different eras, my brain quickly began making parallels.  My country may not have existed at the same time as the renaissance San Lorenzo de el Escorial (a monastery and palace of the Habsburg dynasty), but the music I’d studied in my music history classes did.  In fact, as we walked through the grand library of el Escorial, I found a book that displayed original Renaissance music notation.  I was absolutely speechless.

Even in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, we drew parallels.  Paintings by El Greco and Velasquez and Goya told of love and pain and suffering and peace and war and depression and were all so wholly human that you couldn’t help but feel it.  In the Museo Reina Sofia, we stared for fifteen minutes at Picasso’s Guernica, searching and finding and marveling at the human elements that were tucked into every corner of the masterpiece.  No matter the continent, people will hurt and love and laugh and cry.  People will feel.  People will create.  Spain has been nothing but a testament to the human need to create.

One of the most incredible things we saw was definitely the Roman aqueduct.  It is from the time of the Romans (over 1,000 years old) and absolutely massive.  And to top it all off, it is not bound together by anything like concrete or clay – it is completely freestanding.  This is just one example of the MANY times our jaws found their place about a centimeter off the ground!


The Roman aqueduct


Temple in Spain Summer 2016 Students in front of the Aqueduct – photo credit to our incredible guide, Gerry

Amidst all of the fascinating Spanish history, we found ourselves in Madrid during their Pride Week!  The streets and people alike were decked out in Roy G. Biv.  There was an air of excitement everywhere you went.  I could see it in tourists, in natives, and in my fellow students alike.  Between the festivities of Pride Week, the incredible excursions, and the meals that we all shared, friendships began to form and memories began to take shape.  And just to think… it’s only the beginning!



Being among such incredible company in such a historic city put a smile on my face.  And let me tell you – it hasn’t quite gone away just yet, and I don’t think it will.


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Ready or Not…

Hannah Stevens

Hannah Stevens

The box fan keeps a steady stream of cool air focused on me as the birds wake and the ground warms. The house is cool, as it always is in the mornings, and waiting for the heat of the day. June has lived up to its summery expectations, with longer days, warmer nights, and scorching, cloudless beautiful days. After a couple weeks of cool and cloudy rains that plagued the changing of April to May, June has given way to the sun that we’ve so desperately been awaiting.

The sun…

I keep imagining how the sun will look in Spain.  I know that the sun is the sun and is the one constant we can count on.  But how might it look rising from the Asturian mountain tops?  How might it look when it dances between cathedral spires in the heart of Oviedo?  I can feel my pulse speeding just a little bit as Spain races through my mind.

The passport is in my desk drawer.  The itineraries are set.  The plane ticket that was scrimped and worked and saved for is finally purchased.  Google Images and Maps have been scoured through, the manual has been poured over, and the online checklist has been clicked and checked up to date.  Less than five days til my departure, and I still can’t believe it’s all real!

As a music education major, I never thought studying abroad was an option for me.  I would leaf through the study abroad brochures with wide eyes and a growing smile before stopping myself with a “No, Hannah!  Fly in four!”  There are simply no classes available that would further me in my music studies.  When I added the certification in Spanish language, however, a door squeaked open.  It took me a year and a half, but I finally found the courage to yank it open from a crack to a wide and welcome portal – a portal that offers endless opportunities and experiences of color and music and language and laughter and I am so scared.

I am an independent being.  Of the five children in my family, I am the adventurer.  I went from small town rural Nazareth to big city urban Temple without even thinking twice.  I love forging through new experiences, exploring new territories, trying new things.  While I can’t say that I would ever go as far as to skydive (why take the chance of smashing into the earth like an egg dropped from a balcony?), I dream of scuba diving, hiking the Appalachian trail, tasting crocodile and bison, zip lining through the Amazon, yelling into the Grand Canyon and hearing my own voice respond.  I am adventurous.  But I am also afraid.

Traveling is exciting!  It’s like a puzzle – one of the greatest problem solving activities one can possibly imagine.  But it is, indeed, daunting.  You are faced with not only a new transportation system, a new area, a completely new culture, but also with a new language.  Of course, the courses I have taken and the experience I have gained so far will serve me well.  I am confident that I will learn and thrive in this environment.  But my confidence does not stifle reality.

I love language.  Any and all languages, really!  It’s one of the reasons I love music so much – it’s like its own language.  Letters go into little phrases that go into bigger phrases that then become a word that has meaning.  It’s a fascinating concept!  Language is a beautiful entity that holds feeling and emotion and facts and opinions and is vital to the culture of those who speak it.  As a student who is still an amateur in the linguistic facet of Hispanic culture, I am indeed daunted.

I know how to ask the important questions  (“Where is the bathroom?”  “How much does this cost?”  “Can I have the largest coffee available?”).  I know how to carry a decent conversation.  But I am by no means fluent or bold in the language.  I can see myself faltering and stuttering and flushing while trying to find a word or conjugation in the midst of conversation with a host family, or when trying to order a dish, or when answering a question in class.  I do not want to make a fool of myself, of course.  But what’s more, I do not by any means want to make a mockery of their language.

I do not want these things.  But I so desperately want to learn.

The streets of Oviedo, I’ve come to realize, are more than just stone and cement.  They are stories.  Stories that have been, and stories that are, and stories that are waiting to happen.  They are waiting so desperately to tell and to be and to share and to see.  While I have reservations, they will not rule me.  They will play into my healthy respect for Spain and its culture.  They will sit aside as I feel the Oviedo sun on my face and become part of the stories of its streets.  I may not be wholly ready for Oviedo, but I know with assuredness that Oviedo is ready for me.

¡Hasta luego, Oviedo!


After a semester of living with an amazing host family, taking only Spanish classes, meeting new friends, trying different foods, and exploring Oviedo, I returned home last week to a familiar bed and very happy parents. The homecoming was more bittersweet for me, because as excited as I was to get back to the people I missed, I found it really difficult to leave Spain without knowing when (not if) I’d be back.When I booked my flights last fall, I decided to take some extra time after the program ended to travel through parts of Italy and France with friends, and by the end of the semester a part of me was wishing I had planned to stay in Asturias for just a few more days. Unfortunately, I knew I had to leave at some point, and although I may have underestimated the challenge of hauling a semester’s worth of luggage around Europe, I was so glad I decided not to head home immediately. The final leg of my study abroad adventure meant I got to visit a few more beautiful cities, but it also gave me some time to wrap my head around the incredible semester I’d just completed.


The Spanish Embassy in Rome wouldn’t let me forget my second home.

I hoped I would be so busy sightseeing in some of Europe’s most famous destinations that I would forget to be sad about leaving Oviedo. My plan worked for about 36 hours, then on my second day in Rome I made the mistake of going to see the Spanish Steps, which get their name from their proximity to the Spanish Embassy. When I saw the Spanish flag waving from the government building across the Piazza di Spagna, the sadness I felt as I left my homestay in Spain came flooding back. There I was on vacation in Rome, getting ready to fly home to Houston, and yet feeling homesick for somewhere totally different. I glared at the flag for a few minutes, as if it were the Embassy’s fault that I couldn’t both stay in Spain forever and go home to my family, friends, and school in the U.S.

I eventually peeled myself away and continued with my week of sightseeing, but reminders of my recently completed semester kept popping up. I walked by a bus promoting tourism in Asturias, heard tourist families speaking Spanish, met other students who were just beginning their study abroad program, and felt the same nostalgia every time I thought about the fact that mine had ended. After joking that I felt like Oviedo was following me, I had to remember that was the point. I hadn’t decided to study abroad with the goal of having a great time and then forgetting about it—I had learned a lot, and hopefully some of those things would stick with me, even if it meant feeling a little sad when I saw the Spanish flag.

Since I got home, I’ve been meeting with family and friends, showing off pictures from my semester, and of course answering lots of questions. One of the most common ones has been, “What was your favorite part?” and I’ve had a lot of trouble answering it. How do you choose your favorite thing about a five-month period? I’ve come up with a few go-to answers (feel free to use them when you return from your semester abroad!):

  • Food. Not just the fabada or the jamón, but the role that food plays in people’s everyday lives. I loved being able to buy local produce and freshly baked bread at an affordable price, and I think my time abroad has made me think more about the quality of my food, not just the convenience.
  • Language. In addition to improving my grammar and accent, I gained confidence in my ability to communicate in Spanish. I love that I can express my thoughts in two different languages, and I’m on the lookout for opportunities to practice now that I’m back in the U.S.
  • Outlook. I don’t know if it was because I was outside of my normal environment, or if the people I met in Spain were exceptionally easygoing, but during my semester in Oviedo I felt noticeably less stressed than I generally did before. If I am able to maintain one habit that I picked up while abroad, I hope it’s the ability to learn from and enjoy my experiences as they’re happening, rather than worrying about what might come next.

Those are just a few of the things I enjoyed about studying abroad, but the whole semester was filled with individual experiences that added up to a perfect semester. As I’m settling into my life back in the U.S., I look forward to continued reminders of everything I did and learned throughout my time in Oviedo.

A Weekend Adventure to Picos de Europa


Last weekend the Temple group had the opportunity to visit the Picos de Europa, a mountain range that stands out for its proximity to the coast. As we’re nearing the end of the semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about how there’s so much of Spain that I still haven’t seen, so I appreciated getting to explore more of Asturias and Cantabria in our last couple of weeks here. Here’s a rundown of our most recent weekend adventure:


Learning about how Cabrales is made

Our first stop was in a town called Asiego, home to 85 people and the Ruta’l Quesu y la Sidra (route of cheese and cider). We spent part of the morning learning about the production of Cabrales cheese, a regional specialty that has received international distinctions and awards. We saw one of the small factories where it’s prepared, and then we took a short walk out of the town to see a cave where the cheese is housed for a few months before it’s ready to be sold. I don’t know much about cheese production, but it was pretty clear this was the real deal. Cabrales has a protected designation of origin from the European Union, so its official name and label mean it has to be made in this region by traditional means. I learned that it’s actually not too hard to find in the U.S., so if you’re curious about what cave-aged Asturian blue cheese tastes like, look for the dark green foil wrapping in specialty food stores like Philadelphia’s Di Bruno Bros.


We wrapped up our visit to Asiego with a lunch that included plenty of the cheese we had learned about, as well as multiple courses of regionally popular foods like morcilla (blood sausage) and fabes con marisco (bean stew with seafood). One of the best parts of lunch was getting to pour our own sidra, although I have to admit my form needs some work.


That night we stayed in Potes, a town in the neighboring region of Cantabria and a popular destination for visitors to the Picos de Europa. While walking around the area we came across a group of dancers giving an outdoor performance. Afterwards, several Temple students were brave enough to join in.

The next morning we visited Santo Toribio de Liébana, a monastery that served as a place for the protection of relics because of its location high up in the mountains. It’s an especially important site for many pilgrims, because, according to Roman Catholic tradition, it houses the largest remaining piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.


Braving the wind with Alex, Casey, Lucy, and Louis

For the rest of the day we got a taste of the wide variety of outdoor scenery northern Spain has to offer. We rode a cable car up to a section of the snow-topped mountains in the Picos de Europa range, and just a few hours later we were sitting by the shore. In Llanes, a town along the coast, we enjoyed what’s probably the most Asturian lunch you can find—fabada asturiana, generous servings of steak and patatas fritas, and arroz con leche (rice pudding). The whole weekend was a reminder of the amazing sights, food, and people in this part of Spain, and now it’ll be even more difficult to leave in just a few days.


The view on our walk to the shore from the town of Llanes

Picos de Europa Group Trip pt.2




El Monasterio de Santo Toribio de Liébana


Group photo outside of the monastery


Fuente De:


The view of the mountains from the top


Picos de Europa



Students posing in front of the mountains


Students enjoying their time in Picos


Katie loving the view of Picos


Group photo with the Temple flag


Group photo without the Temple flag (photo credit: anonymous)




The gorgeous view in Vidiago


Students enjoying the sunny day


Students completing the paseo in Vidiago


The destination of the paseo where on another day bufones can be seen


Sean taking in the gorgeous view


Shannon, Nathan and Sean


Erin and Alex

Picos de Europa Group Trip pt.1


This past weekend we had our group trip to Picos de Europa. We left on Saturday morning and returned Sunday evening. Here’s a recount of what we did:




Our tour guide for the Ruta del Queso y La Sidra


The “Cueva de Queso” where the Cabrales cheese matures


The view of the mountains during our tour


Students taking a break during the walk back to the restaurant


Students enjoying the view Asiego has to offer


Our tour guide pouring a cup of sidra for everyone before lunch started


A traditional experience of “gaita” music before, during, and after our lunch


Sarah trying to pour sidra the correct way


Joanna and Victoria


Lucy and Alex


Group photo after a delicious and fulfilling lunch




The pretty village of Potes


The River Quiviesa that flows through the village


Students enjoying their time by the river

Excursion to the Canary Islands and South of Spain


Gran Canaria:

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The Temple flag in the Maspalomas Dunes (photo concept credit: Gabi DiMarco)


Panoramic view of the Maspalomas Dunes


Gabi and Erica representing Temple in Gran Canaria


Gabi with the Temple flag in the dunes


Erica posing with the Temple flag




Plaza de Espana in Seville

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The Oviedo tiled alcove in Plaza de Espana


Gabi, Maddy and Nathan posing in front of the Oviedo alcove


Beautiful Moorish architecture in the Alcazar of Seville




The Malagueta Beach in Malaga


Gabi and Maddy posing at the beach


Gabi in all smiles after finding a door perfect for her height in the Gibralfaro Castle




The exterior of the magnificent Alhambra Palace


Panoramic view of the city from the Alhambra


Inside of the Alhambra


One of the many pretty narrow streets in Granada

The Study Abroad Road Less Traveled


As I was making my plans to spend this semester in Oviedo, one of my biggest hesitations was the location of the program. I had never heard of Oviedo before coming to Temple, and a part of me wondered if I would prefer a program in a larger or more well-known city. Talking to other people was often unhelpful when it came to easing that concern—when I mentioned my study abroad plans, I often got responses like, “Have you thought about (insert famous European city)?” or “Why Oviedo?”

Getting into those conversations stressed me out. Even though the questions were almost always driven by genuine interest and curiosity, I felt as though I had to justify my study abroad decision and had trouble coming up with satisfying answers. I wanted to get a lot of things out of studying abroad—language practice, greater independence, a change of pace—but none of my reasons seemed as easy to articulate as the glamour of attending class in a world-famous destination.

Once the semester began, I stopped wondering how my experience fit in to other people’s ideas about studying abroad, and I pretty quickly forgot my own hesitations. I’m sure I would have enjoyed my time if I’d gone elsewhere, but there are things I’ve come to appreciate about Oviedo that I don’t think I would have had in a city that’s more popular among tourists. For anyone who’s thinking about studying abroad, here are some things to keep in mind about lesser-known locations like Oviedo:

Language immersion

If you’re hoping to learn or improve your fluency in a new language, one of the best ways to practice is by surrounding yourself with people who speak it. In a place like Oviedo, it’s unusual to hear conversations in English while walking around the city. Because the vast majority of people here are native Spanish speakers, the staff at stores and restaurants usually address me in their native language. When I’m traveling in other parts of the country, it’s sometimes harder to start and carry on conversations in Spanish, because people are accustomed to English-speaking visitors.


Gascona is full of popular restaurants, and there’s not an English menu in sight.


Blending in

Although it sounds counterintuitive, I’ve found it easier to “blend in” in Oviedo than in places with more business travelers and tourists passing through. I’m definitely not convincing anyone that I’m Spanish, but I don’t usually feel like a tourist in Asturias, and I’m not really treated like one either. Because the region’s economy doesn’t depend as heavily on drawing in and accommodating foreign visitors, there’s not as much of a need to worry about falling into “tourist traps” or maneuvering negative stereotypes.


Whatever kind of city you choose, my biggest piece of study abroad advice is to go in without specific expectations. That’s not to say you should be pessimistic—I don’t think low expectations are any better than impossibly high ones. I believe that if you don’t plan out everything you want to see, do, or learn during your time abroad, you’re more likely to be surprised and impressed by your day-to-day experiences. I was nervous because I knew so little about Oviedo before I came here, but in hindsight I’m glad I started my semester without extensive knowledge of the area. I feel like I spent the semester doing exactly what I wanted to do, even though I had so much trouble articulating what that was beforehand.