We caught up with AIFS alum, Andrew Gleason, who spent a semester abroad in Granada, Spain during Spring 2011. Check out what he’s up to now, how studying abroad impacted his career path, and the advice he gives to prospective and current study abroad participants.
How has your study abroad experience impacted your educational goals and career?
Studying abroad in Granada, Spain served as a catalyst to continue working internationally, specifically in the international development and humanitarian sector. Following my time in Spain, I went on to earn a dual degree in Spanish and Peace & Global Studies. From there, I returned to Spain for one year to teach English at a Catholic school in Collado Villalba. I had a strong desire to further advance my Spanish-speaking abilities, grow professionally and delve deeper into the Spanish culture.
My time working in Spain was a stepping-stone to the international development and humanitarian sectors. I transitioned to working at the Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) at Creighton University where I lived and worked in the Dominican Republic, coordinating and facilitating 25+ short-term, service-learning and medical humanitarian programs per year. I collaborated with an established Dominican non-profit and integrated Creighton’s service-learning programs into their rural outreach initiatives, including rural women’s health, early childhood education and agricultural programs. I had the opportunity to work with over 160 Dominican health promoters from over 140 rural communities, in addition to public health institutions, non-profit organizations, private health institutions and social service agencies. While working at Creighton, I also earned a master’s degree in Medical Anthropology, gaining significant qualitative research experience having conducted in-depth ethnographic research in the Dominican Republic.
My previous professional experience in global non-profit work has provided me tremendous insight into pressing global issues including gender inequality, exclusion, health disparities, income inequality, immigration/migration, and mental health/psychosocial needs that stem from these issues. Following my time in the Dominican Republic, I worked for Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) overseeing humanitarian volunteer programming in Chile, Nicaragua and Peru. I developed and maintained key relationships with local partners including placement agencies (i.e. schools, social service agencies, and non-profit organizations), religious communities, and other local support personnel.
Currently, I work as a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Specialist at Save the Children, an international humanitarian and development organization, based in Washington, D.C. Studying abroad with AIFS opened my eyes to a country and community unlike my own in the U.S. I learned so much about myself and those I encountered while abroad, which truly served as a catalyst to working internationally throughout my career.
How has your study abroad experience impacted other areas of your life?
My study abroad experience in southern Spain not only cultivated a cultural sensitivity and curiosity that still informs my professional career today, but also shaped my identity. My time in Spain was a period of personal exploration and growth. Even though I found myself in a very different cultural context than that of the U.S., I found comfort and familiarity in relationship. I came to understand the power of connection and relationship, and ultimately built bonds that have truly stood the test of time.
I recall my first few weeks in Granada; I was determined to find a coffee shop or café in which I could study and integrate into local culture. One day, I stumbled upon a teteria, or a tea shop, owned by a young Moroccan couple. The tea shop soon became a frequented spot after morning classes at the university, not only because the shop served homemade baked goods and Moroccan tea, but because I found myself building a strong friendship with this young Moroccan couple. By mid-semester I visited the tea shop three to four times a week and we had the most wonderful conversations and dialogues. We always used Spanish as our mode of communication, which I always found intriguing, since Spanish was a second language for all of us. Our exchanges were incredibly meaningful as I learned about their background, their studies, and their successes and struggles. I never expected to make such deep friendships on my study abroad experience, but am so grateful for the connections we made.
Have you been back to your study abroad location since your time abroad?
I returned to Granada, Spain in 2012-2013, two years after my study abroad experience. I lived and worked in Collado Villalba, Madrid at the time, teaching English at a Catholic School, and I returned to Granada for an extended weekend. In advance of my return, I contacted my former host-mother, Maria-Luisa. She was delighted to hear from me and jumped at the opportunity to re-connect over tapas.
When returning to Granada for the first time since studying abroad, I felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. The sights, smells and sounds brought back a flood of vivid memories. I visited many of my favorite local cafes, restaurants and parks. I also strolled through the narrow, winding streets of the Albaicín. Once reaching the neighborhood’s summit I gazed across at La Alhambra, one of Spain’s most precious and renowned fortress. The beauty did not cease to amaze me. Moments like these reminded me of the continued desire to explore the world and all it has to offer.
Are you still in contact with other students or anyone you met during your time abroad?
I stay in touch with other U.S. students via social media; it’s inspiring to see how my friends’ lives have evolved since studying abroad. When a friend returns to Spain and shares their experiences on social media, I think we all share moments of nostalgia, reflecting back on the memories we formed together.
I also keep in touch with Mehdi and Bouchra, my dear Moroccan friends from Teteria Gharnata. They no longer live in Spain, but we continue to update each other on our whereabouts and major life events.
Are there any activities or traditions from your time abroad that you have continued back in the US?
One of many traditions and rituals I appreciated from my time in Spain, that I continue today, is building community through food and drink. Spanish culture, along with many other cultures across the globe, place great importance on sharing a meal, which creates space for dialogue, connection and relationship.
What are your top destinations for future travel?
New Zealand. Thailand. Colombia. Morocco.
Any advice for students who are considering studying abroad?
Take a leap of faith and allow yourself to explore the world and experience a culture unlike your own. The rewards are endless.
Any advice for recently returned study abroad students?
As you return home, think about how you want to tell your story. What’s your elevator speech? What do you want to say if you only have two minutes to speak of 6 months worth of experiences? What about if you had 5 minutes with a close friend? Thinking critically about how you will share your story is important, not only for yourself, but also for those people, places and culture you portray in your story.