“It’s a good lesson in the sense that the world is not going to change for you.” —Emma Schultz
I’ve gotten to know Emma well since we arrived in Madrid in August. It became clear on our third night here, when we shared our veggie dinner, that we were destined to become friends and now we are that and so much more. We have been a travel team and now Dreams Abroad colleagues! Both of us have faced some challenging times while here and overcome these trials both on our own and together.
When I sat down with Emma most recently, I realized just how much she has changed since we met. I have enjoyed being a part of Emma’s first year, and I look forward to watching her explore more of Europe and thrive while doing so.
Meet Emma, the determined:
LT: Tell me about yourself. Why did you choose to teach abroad?
ES: I was born in New York City, but because we moved to Texas when I was six, I feel like a Texan. At a very young age I was exposed to international travel and have always had an interest in experiencing new places. So when it came time for me to start thinking about college, I chose Dickinson College in Pennsylvania for its study abroad program options. I studied Anthropology, which was my major, in Tanzania, Africa. Immediately after that, I moved to Denmark for my junior year. Those two very different experiences – researching in rural Tanzania and then living in a very forward-thinking Nordic city – were eye-opening for me and allowed me to see the world in a way that I had not before. “Traveling definitely exposes you to new things and it’s wonderful. When vacationing, after a week or two you get to go home and be comfortable again, surrounded by what you know. Living abroad is very different and I think it challenges you in ways that a vacation almost never does.”
LT: What are your goals while you are here?
ES: I made the decision to move to Spain without very much thought. Having applied to 40-50 jobs during my senior year that I didn’t really stand a chance of getting with just a bachelors degree, I took this job as an auxiliar in Madrid. I was excited about the opportunity to be in a country that I had only visited once before.
For other people the decision to take this job was more traditional in that it strengthened their resumes and had a direct, positive impact on their professional end-goals. It was almost the other way around for me. I decided to move to Spain because I had a job here and the prospect was so exciting. It was then a process of figuring out what I wanted to make of it as I went along. Once I got to Spain I wanted to work a second job – and I found a great one online – improve my Spanish, and explore more of Spain and Europe. Most importantly, I wanted to challenge myself to accept the pace in Spain. Slowing down with my American Type A personality was a huge challenge for me and it was very frustrating at times. I can recognize that after living here for 9 months, I am a calmer person and that isn’t something I would have thought was possible for me. It was a goal that came about after the fact of my being here.
LT: Where are you teaching this year and what has it been like?
ES: Teaching in Spain has been interesting. I feel like CIEE prepared us to envision the job a certain way, but the truth is, that because it’s a government mandated program that exists all over the country, it’s going to be different in every community. In fact, the job that you do will depend in large part on your school, on your principal, your bilingual coordinator and even, within those variables, from classroom to classroom.
I am teaching in Navecerrada which is up in the mountains just over the ridge from Segovia. I am pretty far out from Madrid’s city center but it’s been really nice because it feels, in a way, like I have two homes here. I get to live in the city and have everything that Madrid offers and I get to be in nature during the week too. I have enjoyed working in a smaller community, particularly the one I ended up in, because it reminds me in some ways of the community that I went to high school in.
I mainly teach the first graders but I also work with second, fifth and sixth grades. Naturally, my experience teaching the words for different kinds of fruits to six year olds is going to be very different from drilling conversational English and grammar into the heads of twelve-year-olds to prepare for their PET and KET exams. PET and KET are two different tests that the six graders have to pass in order to continue their bilingual education into seventh grade. The exams are the last week of May and I’ve been working with them to prepare for that all year, especially in the last few weeks. It’s been an especially rewarding part of the job for me.
LT: What are your perceptions of Madrid so far?
ES: I didn’t have any expectations of Madrid in particular, so I moved here prepared to navigate through a new experience. The biggest surprise for me was the pace. I knew that the Spanish rhythm of life was slower than I was used to but I expected such a large cosmopolitan city to have a pace more like New York. Now, I realize that nowhere else in the world is on a New York pace and maybe that’s a good thing.
Obviously, you have to adjust when you move to any new country. For example, many stores here do close in the afternoon for siesta from 2:00-5:00. Many stores don’t open on Sundays and you just have to deal with it. What you’re used to, or what you want, doesn’t matter. “It’s a good lesson in the sense that the world is not going to change for you.” I would say that before I lived in Spain, I was not a very adaptable person and I still have a way to go before I can call myself that. But, after living here and working at this job, I do feel like I have become more flexible. In a bigger sense, that is a skill that I will carry with me my whole life and that will always benefit me.
LT: How do you feel about the integration of the culture so far? Are there things that you have embraced or are hoping to embrace?
ES: I have experienced cultural immersion most significantly at work. Being present, open to conversations, and asking questions has taught me things about the culture in ways that I wouldn’t have necessarily expected. There are a lot of little things in Spain that, if you blink, you could miss.
For instance, we have coffee break at our school everyday from 11:00-11:30 and there is always food in the break room that the cafeteria brings down for the teachers. Food culture is a really big deal at my school. I think that has something to do with the fact that the teachers come from all over Spain and often visit their hometowns for long weekends. They often bring back traditional food from those towns to share. As a result, I have tried different pastries from all over Spain. It’s little things like that that really bring the culture to life for me.
In terms of culture, integration, and trying to embrace both, you just have to seize the opportunities that are presented to you and do your best to create ones for yourself. There is a fifth grade Spanish and math teacher who goes to Madrid every Thursday to spend the night with her mother who lives there alone and is in her 90s. Every Friday morning she will take the bus back halfway from Madrid and then pick up her car in Collado Villalba and drive the rest of the way. She offered to drive me to work on those mornings in exchange for language practice during the drive. We’ve talked about Spanish culture and we practice our Spanglish. I could have said no, but I took the opportunity that I had to get to know one of my coworkers.
LT: What has been the most difficult part of your journey so far? What has been the best part?
ES: The most difficult part of this journey for me has been adjusting to the different pace at which people here go about doing things, especially at work, and how that’s a reflection of different professional and personal endeavors and goals. Because the pace is slower here, people are much calmer about getting things done. I really struggled at work for a period of time, feeling that what I was doing was not important enough and I think that was in large part because I’m used to feeling so busy. I believe that what I do at the school is meaningful but at times I have had a hard time feeling that way.
Over the course of a week, I am at work for almost as long as it takes me to commute there, and I wanted to feel like I was getting more accomplished while there. I wanted to do more and I think that really does tie back into the pressures I put on myself because of my American cultural background and my Type A personality. My friends back home work themselves to the bone, and while I don’t envy that, it took me some time to feel comfortable with how much more laid back my professional life is here. They are, quote unquote, closer to doing what we are supposed to be doing and I am further from that.
However, I have taken the time to reflect on the months that I have spent here and the person I am today. I have had time to do things that are important to me, like reading more. It may not sound like much but I never found the time to do it before. Most importantly, I have the time to think about what I want out of my life. A lot of career-minded Americans get sucked into this life of work and ambition. You spend your whole life working toward the next level and in the grand scheme of things you are working toward retirement when you can finally relax; the idea is that you work hard your whole life so that someday you can ease up. Why wouldn’t you just ease up your whole life if that’s what you want? I have career goals and I don’t want to compromise on those but I know what I don’t want for myself. “Being here has been meaningful for me in a way that I could not have guessed it would be.”
Listening to Emma talk about her life abroad in Madrid was extremely interesting. I watched her life evolve as described over the course of our conversation for this interview. The Emma that I saw before Christmas break and the Emma that I see now are almost like two different people. Emma’s life is more balanced as she embraces the lifestyle in Spain, adapts more and more each day and embraces the opportunities that come to her. Throughout the interview, I could feel her enthusiasm about her time in Spain and her decision to stay another year.
I look forward to reading Emma’s posts on self-care while living abroad to better understand where she is on her journey at that moment.
Cheers to Emma!
Ciao for now,
Leesa with two EE’s