James Madison University

Learning Alongside Students in Spain

By: Brett Seekford
Posted October 27, 2015

PHOTO: Bridge in Seville

Imagine traveling to a foreign land, unaware of cultural traditions, only to find all businesses and restaurants abruptly closed in the middle of the day. Other than fellow tourists, no one is walking the streets but you. You could think you were one of a select few people left on earth only to find out that it was part of the daily siesta. During fall 2014, students and faculty from JMU experienced this firsthand as they spent a semester in Spain.

JMU students who study abroad in Salamanca, Spain, are exposed to many facets of Spanish culture, such as their art and architecture. Their weekdays typically begin at 8:00 a.m. Students attend classes, take a daily siesta from 2:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and resume classes in the evening. Every other weekend was spent on cultural excursions and students enjoyed cheap plane tickets to see other parts of Europe during their free time. Alongside the students, faculty members who travel abroad are also exposed to life in another country.

Amy Graham, a faculty member in the Nursing Department, traveled abroad with the group. She applied for the Faculty Member in Residence (FMIR) position through the Office of International Programs. This opportunity allows faculty to learn about a new culture, collaborate with faculty of different nationalities and work in an international environment. Graham was joined by her family, and they, too, were deeply immersed in Spanish culture.

Despite having taken Spanish classes in the past, language proved to be a significant obstacle. "The Spanish accent is much different than we hear from Spanish speakers in the U.S.  Much can be lost in translation," Graham explained. "When traveling, it is easier to learn phrases to get you through the airport or on a bus. Trying to express how you feel or what you are thinking or making a joke can be incredibly challenging in a different language."

The daily siestas were also challenging. At first, they went out into the city in hopes to eat at a restaurant. They quickly learned that the siesta led restaurants and other businesses to close for a period of time so they had to wait to eat. "We would go hungry for a little while. It was a very different tradition compared to some of the ones we have in the United States," she said.

After their semester-long stay, she and her family fell in love with the country and would like to experience similar cultures: "I would love to apply to go back to Spain through the OIP.  I would also like to explore other options for short-term study abroad programs in other Spanish speaking countries."

This experience provided Graham with invaluable insight that she has been able to share with her students. Her newfound knowledge allows her to show the similarities between Spain and the United States' cultures and healthcare systems. "I was able to tour one of the hospitals in Salamanca and talk with the nurses about their challenges and opportunities," she said. Her time in the Spanish healthcare system introduced her to the positive and negative aspects of socialized medicine and gave her an understanding of the well-being of Spanish citizens.

PHOTO: Spanish Cathedral
"We face many of the same issues here in the United States in the profession of nursing, but nutrition and health is emphasized from an early age in Spain. You rarely saw overweight or obese people," she said. "I also met with the Department of Public Health and the University of Salamanca's nursing program. I toured their nursing department and met with faculty from Spain. It gave me an appreciation for another country's healthcare system that I could share with my students."

The study abroad opportunity exposed participants to the inner workings of another country. Graham hopes the trip opened students' minds to new ways of thinking: "I think Spain gave them a broader view of how diverse our world is and how people can work together to bring many different perspectives to the table. When working through problems, they will be open to different ideas and solutions to problems."