We caught up with Victoria Cohen, an AIFS alum who studied in Granada, Spain back in 2007 as a gap year student. She talks about the impact her experience in Spain had on her education and career paths, as well as how she grew as a person studying abroad at the age of 18.
How has your study abroad experience impacted your educational goals and career?
My study abroad experience was probably different than most students because I was essentially a high schooler! Technically I had graduated in December of my senior year and then left shortly after to study in Granada but I was just 18 and hadn’t yet started my true college career so I was a bit younger than the rest of the crowd (mostly juniors in college). The cool part about that was that I was actually in the process of applying to colleges and deciding where I was going to go and so many of the friends I made on that trip helped in influencing my decision, guiding me through the process.
The one big way that the study abroad did impact my education was that when I arrived at college (SMU in Dallas) the following fall 2007, the classes from AIFS counted for over a semester worth of classes and essentially ate up all of my electives, which meant I was able to finish my undergrad (with some summer school classes) in 3 years, which then meant I was able to acquire my Master’s in my 4th year. So I have to give huge credit to AIFS for being the catalyst to getting my B.S. and M.S. in a combined 4 years of study!
The ironic part is that after graduating with degrees in Engineering and working in Corporate America for 5 years, I’ve now embarked on a whole new career in the health, wellness, yoga, and blogging space. On my blog, I share ways to become a more mindful and engaged citizen of the world through the food you eat, the exercises you do, the daily choices you make and I think some of that stems from the fact that I’ve had a lot of great experiences traveling around the world and seeing many ways of life — probably the most in-depth being my time studying abroad, where I got to live in essentially a dorm type situation with about 10 AIFS students and another 40 or so Spanish students, becoming fully immersed in their culture and life.
How has your study abroad experience impacted other areas of your life?
Studying abroad before college was such a great way to kickstart learning how to handle things on my own. When I came back to the states and attended college in Texas, my family in California didn’t seem all that far away after having been in Spain for half a year. Although I didn’t end up taking any other Spanish classes in college, I will say the way the program worked for me — with the intensive course at the beginning — really helped to engrain not only the language, but the culture. It’s been a decade since I studied abroad and even without utilizing Spanish in my everyday life there are many things I remember just from those courses.
Have you been back to your study abroad location since your time abroad? If yes, what was that experience like for you?
I have! It was such a blast to get back there in 2011 and tour around one of my favorite places on Earth. I remember coming home from Granada and, sometimes at night when I was trying to fall asleep, I would pretend I was walking through the town, making my way up the unnamed streets to Mirador St Nicolas. To my surprise, when I actually got back there 4 years later, I was still able to find all of my favorite places. I would love to get back there again with my husband and show him this slice of the world that holds such a special place in my heart. The people I met there and the experiences I had were unforgettable and were a huge part of transitioning from being a kid into being an adult.
I think my favorite part about Granada is that it’s a small city. When I went back it felt so small, but as an 18-year-old it felt like the whole world. Looking back, it was such a perfect place to study because you could get around the whole town on foot but it was never boring or dull. Being a big college town, it had tons to offer without just feeling like a big city you could get lost in.
Are you still in contact with other students or anyone you met during your time abroad?
Some of them, yes, via social media. Unfortunately, Facebook was just taking off back then and Instagram was far from being a thing so we didn’t all connect right away. In some cases, I don’t remember all of the last names (or former last names for people who are now married) to track them down. Mainly I wish I had some way to find some of the Spanish students we lived with or became friends with. I am still friends with a few of them on Facebook but would be such a blast to track them all down!
Are there any activities or traditions from your time abroad that you have continued back in the US?
I recently shared a post about the breakfast we ate every day, pan or tostada con tomate, and how I recently made it at home and the taste brought back SO many memories.
Anyone else out there that studied abroad (or lives in) Spain?? In 2007 I studied in Granada and we ate tostada con tomate every single day for breakfast. The version on the blog today is a little different using @littlenorthernbakehouse GF/vegan bread and some gorgeous heirloom tomatoes but let me tell you the flavors were total nostalgia. Link in bio for more about this Spanish staple that I totally adore! 🇪🇸 #tostadacontomate #pancontomate #granadaspain
A lot of foods remind me of my time there: manchego cheese, Moroccan cuisine, and even just the word bocadillos which we had for lunch every Sunday when the kitchen in our house was closed. I also always loved that the Spaniards said “no pasa nada” to everything. It was such a sign of the way the culture worked, meaning “don’t worry about it”or “no big deal.” The other funny part is that when you learn Spanish in Spain it’s hard not to pick up on the lisp, especially in southern Spain. They often drop the “s” at the end of words. For example, “adio” instead of “adios” and “graTHiA” instead of “gracias.” If I speak Spanish now, which is rare, I catch myself using that adorable accent and feel nostalgic!
What are your top destinations for future travel?
One place that I’m sad I missed out on while in Spain was Basque country. I would love to visit Bilbao and San Sebastián. I will say, I’ve traveled pretty extensively through Europe and driving through Southern Spain was one of the most breathtaking experiences I’ve encountered, so a trip back would be awesome. Italy is always high on my list because the food is just so yummy. Greece and Croatia are also on top, as I never made it that far East during my time overseas.
Any advice for students who are considering studying abroad?
Just do it. And maybe do it alone — that’s to say don’t go with a group of people you already know. I didn’t know a soul going and I was just a few months post turning 18 with zero college experience. It was such a great way to just throw yourself into a situation where you have to make friends and build new relationships, and with people from different backgrounds. Regardless though, just go! No one ever says “I wish I hadn’t studied abroad,” but most people I know who didn’t get to do it say the opposite.
Any advice for recently returned study abroad students?
Write down as much as you can, record the places you ate the activities you did, etc. It will be fun to look at later. I wish I had more of a record than just what’s in my head. Maybe get a map and mark all of the spots. Also now that social media is so easy and prevalent, connect with everyone you studied with (probably a no-brainer). Lastly, try not to get frustrated with your friends or family who may not understand what you’ve just experienced. It’s easy to feel like an outsider coming back and to feel disconnected even, but staying in touch with your abroad friends and being open to other new experiences will help you transition back.
Want to study abroad in Granada, Spain or do a gap year like AIFS alum Victoria did? Consider a semester, academic year, summer, January term, or gap year abroad! Programs in Spain are also available in Barcelona, Madrid, and Salamanca.