Semester Abroad

Q&A with Grace Seeley, Huntsman ‘21

April 22, 2020
By Cindy Luo, Penn Abroad Leader, CAS ‘20

Grace Seeley, a junior in the Huntsman Program, spent a semester abroad at the University of Seville (CASA Seville) in Spain during spring of 2019. We sat down with her to dive deeper into the ways she immersed herself, found opportunities to engage with her community, and grew throughout the process. 

What drew you to the Huntsman Program at Penn?
I had studied Spanish all through middle school and high school and knew that I wanted to study in Spain at some point in college, regardless of where I went. When I stumbled upon Huntsman, I realized it integrated my interests in business, social sciences and politics and guaranteed that I was going abroad.

How did you decide upon the CASA program in Seville, Spain?
For Huntsman, we can do either the College programs or Wharton programs. I knew I wanted to study in Spain. In terms of logistics and how my schedule worked out, it made more sense for me to do a College approved program and work on that part of my degree. I was choosing between Barcelona and Seville, which I think is a decision a lot of people find themselves making. I knew from having spoken with other Huntsman students who've done both programs that the Seville program is much more focused on the language and culture, given that you do a homestay, unlike in Barcelona where you live in a dorm. In Seville, you're taking your classes at the university, meeting a lot more Spanish students, and participating in community service. To my understanding, it's a much more immersive experience, which was just what I was looking for. 

How is the CASA program structured?
In terms of academics, everyone takes five classes during the semester. Two of them are in the program center. The first is called “Más Allá de los Estereotipos” or Beyond the Stereotypes, a cultural pro-seminar that starts immediately when you arrive. We did a lot of trips around Seville to get to know different parts of the city beyond the tourist spots. We also had a research project where we could investigate some sort of social, cultural, political aspect of Seville in depth through interviews. The second class we took was a history class--the history of modern day Spain, from about 1898 to today, which helped to provide a lot of context in terms of politics and day-to-day experiences in Spain. The other three classes you take at the Universidad de  Sevilla. For me, being in Huntsman I wanted to take classes that fill my Area Studies requirements, which was pretty flexible because it could be anything related to Seville or Spain. For my International Studies requirement, I took an Econ of the EU class. Other than the classes, there's the community service component which is part of the pro-seminar class; everyone works with some community organization. I worked with a secondary school teaching English. 

What was your research project?
In addition to my CASA coursework, I was also part of CASA’s Historical Memory Fellowship. We got to travel to a lot of different places in Spain to learn about the issue of historical memory and to write a 20 page paper. I researched the manifestations of the historical memory debate on present day society, religion, education and politics in Seville.

What surprised you most about learning in Seville?
Before I went to Seville, I don't think I fully appreciated all the academic privileges we have here, and I think it's really easy for Penn students to take for granted things like the state and the quality of the classrooms, the infrastructure, and platforms like Canvas. I had one professor who had contingency lessons planned in case the WiFi in the university didn't work, which happened more than once. In Seville, the learning environment itself is very different than it is here. That doesn't have any implications as far as the rigor or the content of the coursework, but I think I was just surprised that things like WiFi may not work, and that just happens.

How was your experience learning Spanish in Spain?
Before I left for Spain, I took several Spanish courses at Penn. When I arrived in Seville, on day two, they gave a pretty intensive language evaluation. And I remember the professor who was facilitating language evaluations asking me what I wanted to improve most. I said that I could write an essay in Spanish pretty much as well as I can in English, but my vocabulary for things in day-to-day life was less developed. I’d used my Spanish exclusively in an academic context, and I really wanted to improve my day-to-day vocabulary. For me, that happened by living with a host family, where I had to use Spanish for more than explaining literary symbolism. Aside from the vocabulary aspect, my confidence in using Spanish grew. I was very timid about speaking with native speakers at first, but I was thrown into this new environment, and I had to get over that anxiety to get by. Practicing with people helped immensely.

What advice would you give another student looking to study in Spain?
If it's someone who's debating between Barcelona and Seville, obviously I'm a big advocate of the Seville program. I think it's the best program for improving your Spanish. For someone who's already decided they're going to Seville and wants advice for how to get through it, I would just say to take advantage of every opportunity. All the people working in the program are very well-connected in the city; if there’s something you’re interested, they’ll find a way for you to get involved outside of your classes.

Did you learn about Spanish politics?
I definitely did because there were elections right before we got there and then right as we were leaving;it was a very top of the mind issue. In our History of Modern Day Spain course, we talked a lot about Spanish politics and the evolution of the current political parties. I thought it was really interesting to learn about especially since it was on the news all the time, and I also got to talk to my host family a lot about politics and their perceptions. People in my classes also loved to talk about it. 

Did they ask you about US politics?
Yes. My host parents knew a lot about US politics just by virtue of having hosted so many Americans. People in my classes had a lot of questions about my political views, as when I got there, it was when the US government was shut down and that was just so unfathomable to them. We were told by the program at the beginning, like “look, everyone on the planet has an opinion about your country. That’s not the case with many other countries. Sometimes you're just going to get people who say things that you may not agree with or may be blatantly inaccurate, and that's just the way it is.” But I personally didn't encounter that at all. I just think people were interested in having deeper conversations with an American and learning about what they saw on the news.

How was it like living with your host family?
It was great. My host family was a retired couple, with two sons in their 30s who lived elsewhere. The program does a really good job of finding and retaining really good host families who are genuinely interested in sharing their culture, getting to know the students, and helping us with our Spanish. I loved living with my host family and couldn’t imagine my experience any other way. I had someone who cooked authentic Spanish food for me three meals a day for five months--what better way to get to know the food? Having a home-like atmosphere makes studying abroad feel a lot less foreign. Also having people who could answer your questions about XYZ political issues was really great, and they’d be so excited to explain the news to us. I know a lot of people are stressed about it because there's fear of the unknown, but for the Seville program, all of the families are great. Everyone loved their host family.

Most your favorite travel experience, either in or outside of Spain?
In Spain, we went to Ronda, a village on a cliff. I'd actually been there before with my family but only for one day, and I knew I wanted to spend more time there. It's absolutely beautiful. We did a lot of hiking; we went into the valley for a wine tour to get to know the people living in the vineyard. It was a really good time. Outside of Spain, I went to northern Morocco--Tangier, Chefchaouen, Tetouan, and Asilah. It was a really eye opening experience just because Spain and Morocco geographically are so close, but culturally they’re worlds apart. It was so different from any other place I had been before, and it was beautiful. 

What was the easiest way for you to get around in Seville?
On foot--I walked everywhere. You can get from one side of Seville to the other in one hour by walking. There is public transportation. I know a lot of people took the bus if their host families lived farther away or if they had some classes that were diametrically opposite from each other in the city and it was just faster to take the bus. But for me, with my schedule I just walked everywhere, which I loved. The streets of Seville are so meandering, and I felt like I got to see more of Seville that way. 

You mentioned a little bit about your experience teaching in the local secondary school. Can you tell me more about that?
That was part of the community service component of my coursework. I’ve tutored before, but I’ve never taught English. I didn't know what to expect going in, but I taught two different classes, each once a week. The teachers wanted their students to hear a native English speaker, and they wanted them to learn about American culture. So each week, I would present a game or activity that would get them talking about American culture. The students were all around 12 to 13 years old. My favorite memory from that was the week where I made a Jeopardy game for them. Each of the categories related to American culture; one of them was Thanksgiving. We talked about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and they thought that was the weirdest, coolest thing ever. We spent like 10 minutes talking about it. Having grown up here and watched the Macy's parade every year, I didn't really think anything of it, but just to see them be so incredibly fascinated with it was great. The students were all really into Harry Potter, so the next week, the students said, “we want to make a Jeopardy game about Harry Potter and teach it to the class”. These students would barely say a word to me in English before that week, and now they were making Jeopardy games, which was incredible to see.

What did you learn about yourself from your time abroad?
Being abroad forced me to acquire skills that I wouldn't have acquired if I had stayed at Penn. In addition to becoming more adaptable, a value that being abroad instilled in me was curiosity--being open to learning about other people’s realities. I credit a lot of this to the structure of the “Más Allá” course, which required us to interview people in Spain. It’s about asking questions to understand people’s experiences and not just drawing your own conclusions based on your observations. That’s something I've taken with me from Spain, both in my personal life, as well as in my professional life. 

How did you find your interviewees for that project? 
In the beginning, they said we could just start by interviewing our host families. And then for my research project, one of the requirements was to interview two experts in the field, like professors. One expert I interviewed was actually the professor for our history class because she had worked with the local government on historical memory-related projects. Another component of this research project involved historical memory and religious life, so I interviewed someone around my age who was very involved with one of the brotherhoods there, which was a big part of religious life. In general, we found interviewees through personal connections or by reaching out to program staff for their connections.

What stands out to you most about Spanish culture?
I knew this going in, but people's priorities are very different in terms of work-life balance. I heard people say: “in America people live to work, and in Europe people work to live”. I didn't really get it, but then when I got there, I saw how that manifests itself in coursework and my Spanish peers’ approach to academics. It was interesting to almost take it easy; I felt like I could learn just for the sake of learning. There’s no concept of GPA; people generally did not care about grades. At the end of the day, I learned a lot from understanding this “work to live” mindset.

Rapid Fire Questions

What was the most touristy thing that you did?
On the second to last day in Seville, we went to the top of the cathedral. There’s a roof tour--super touristy. It was so worth it; it has the best views of Seville, and we waited until the very end to do it. 

What new foods did you try or what was your favorite?
I've had a lot of Spanish foods before, but my host dad’s paella was the best food I ate there, better than any restaurant paella. I also tried a lot of octopus and anchovies, which I hadn't really eaten before.

What were your most essential items that you packed?
I brought a small pharmacy with me, things like Advil, Tylenol, and Sudafed. Sudafed was crucial because I ended up getting a series of colds. There’s pharmacies in Spain, but over the counter medicine can be much more expensive and harder to access. I would say go to CVS and get everything you would have on hand in your dorm room at Penn. That was a smart move for me.

One word you would use to describe your abroad experience?
Dynamic--in the sense that everything felt different and in the way that I was growing as a person and challenging myself to have new experiences.

Thumbnail

The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.

Thumbnail
Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents
by Jackie Shi, CAS '21