Guerrero, Mexico

The girls taking the public transportation to the swimming pool with their cousins. (February 2015)

Tlaxcala, Mexico

Erika picking out pan dulce at our favorite panaderia. (January 2015)

Bend, Oregon, United States

Our family photo taken in Drake Park with all three of my daughters (October 2014)

San Francisco, California, United States

Enjoying the beautiful view from the top of Twin Peaks (July 2015)

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Exploring the ruins of Palenque during our Great Mexican Road Trip. (May 2014)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Life as a Foreign Grad Student

Well, we all know that I've moved myself, and my family, to Spain so I could attend graduate school at the Universidad de Salamanca in pursuit of a Master in Advanced English Studies. I qualified for additional educational benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill through the VA. I lost all of my educational benefits when I separated from Army National Guard on January 15, 2007. New legislation pushed through Congress and signed by President Bush in 2008 gave me benefits again. Now I qualified for tuition benefits and housing allowance at a 60% level. I finished my Bachelor's degree in 2006 and these new benefits came with an expiration of 15 years to the day from when I came off active duty i.e. my return from Iraq which translates to April 2019 for me. The benefits cover a wide variety of trade school, traditional education, and even foreign schools. I looked into the Applied Linguistics Master offered through the University of Massachusetts Boston but that program was 2 years long, primarily online, and carried a price tag of $30,000. I am still paying off student loans from my BA so sinking another $12,000 into debt just because I had benefits to use wasn't worth it to our family. The plans for any additional education were put on hold. Fast forward to 2014 and the idea resurfaces when I start to research Spain as a third country option for our family.

As I discovered in my research, tuition costs in Europe are a fraction of what they are in the United States. I couldn't even get an associate degree for the price that I'm paying here in Spain for a graduate degree. Fast forward through my application process to USAL and here we are, one month into my program. My cohort has approximately 28 students including myself. My classmates come from Spain, Poland, Bulgaria/Finland, Russia, Ecuador, Chile, and the good ole USA. The majority of the classes are taught in English and I could get away without taking any in Spanish except I'm going to risk one. One of the literature classes, The Literary Impact of the Spanish Civil War, is taught in Spanish so I'm going to a leap of faith and hope that I can understand enough to pass the class because the subject matter is very interesting to me.
Everything just runs differently here. The sooner you realize and accept this, the sooner you will settle in. My Master's program has three tracks: Literature, Linguistics, and a mixture. My original intention was to come out of this with a degree that would enable me to teach English as a Second Language all over the world so I enrolled in the Linguistics track as soon as I got the email with my registration access details. I later spoke with the director who told me that I was better off taking the mixed course only I couldn't change my classes online so I began freaking out. Her response: No pasa nada, just show up to the classes you want when you get here and we'll figure it out later. This is NOT my personality style. I am used to the strict guidelines in the United States. So slow down and relax are going to need to be learned fast.

The program officially started on September 22nd where we were invited to an orientation and general meeting of all the students in the program. It was held in a large stone room upstairs in Anaya, the main building for the School of Filology. The two directors from both Universities gave their presentations, a former Master student who is now here doing her Ph.D. program took us on a tour around the area, and then we had a lovely wine and hors d'ouevres reception afterwards. The Ph.D. student is from Portland, OR so it's nice to have a friendly American face to turn to for help if I should need it. I started my first day of classes two days later, American Poetry and Poetics, ack!!

My classes for the first semester run between 9:15am and 11:15am or 11:30am and 2pm. My class schedule changes every single week because the classes here are short and intense. A 3 credit class means we meet 6 times and a 6 credit class meets 12 times. And some of those classes might be run by two different professors so they break it up into two sections. One professor comes in and teaches 6 classes and gives you a final assignment and then the second professor comes in and does the same so you end up with two final projects for one class. It can be a little confusing coming into the program. So far, there are NO TEXTBOOKS! We have a platform where we can log in and find articles that have been uploaded for our class or our professors hand out copied packets during class. It is all so different! One month into the program and besides some readings from these packets, my homework on the horizon includes a 10 page paper on American poetry, a 6 page paper on discourse analysis in regards to a press release, and 3 exercises and a 10 page paper for Research paper class. Since there are only 10 class slots available each week, depending on which classes I'm taking, I may or may not have any classes during a particular week due to how they are scheduled. On average, I only have 4-5 classes a week so less than 15 hours in class.

My first semester classes are held here in Salamanca and the second semester classes will be held at the university in Valladolid, about an hour away via car. The powers that be are trying to consolidate our classes into 2-3 days a week so we won't have to commute as much. A round trip train ticket would be 16,70a day so that could add up pretty quickly. This first semester runs from September to February and I have 7 classes to finish. Next semester runs from February to April and I only have 3 classes. Then I will have roughly 6 weeks to finish up my Master's Thesis, approximately 30 pages. I will defend in sometime in June or July and then our family heads home after graduation. Let's hope it goes as smooth as it sounds!

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Cost$ of Public $chool

The children who attend public school in our region do not get free textbooks for school. There is a fondo of libros which is maintained by the city government where used books are available in a limited quantity. The books for the following September are ordered the prior March so parents can have an idea of what is available and then they are picked up the week before school starts. Mia is in the Second Course of the Public College i.e. 2nd grade in elementary school. Erika got placed in the First Course at the Institute of Secondary Education i.e. 7th grade in high school. We were able to get 3 of Erika's required textbooks from the Fondo but we had to buy the others. The Mathematics book, Matemáticas. 1 ESO. Savia cost 29,35€. She is taking the bilingual track so her Biology/Geology and Geography classes are taught in English. Each of those books were an additional 35€. I asked one of my professors why these classes were chosen to be taught in English since the vocabulary is more specific and would be more difficult to understand for the students. Who goes out into the world and using a second language to discuss science matters? My professor told me it was because they are not considered to be the important subjects so it's okay if they don't completely grasp all of the information that is being taught. My jaw dropped open and I was left speechless. Way to go Spain, way to go!

While that was a relief to only have to buy half of Erika's textbooks, her art class sent her home with a laundry list of supplies to purchase! I still have no idea what half the things on the list are and Google and only got us so far. We had to buy every book on Mia's list since she writes in most of hers. I think that all told we spent about $500 on all of their books, supplies, backpacks, outfits for PE, and the like. To be honest, this was not an expense that we had budgeted for at all and certainly not what we expected to be faced with during our first week here in Spain. Mia's school started on September 10th and Erika's started on September 17th so we had a little time to get one started before the next. We had to wait for the official phone call that Erika had been placed at the high school next door to Mia's school and they waited until the very last day. They didn't ask for anything except the confirmation that she had applied for her TIE and her NIE number. 
Erika goes to school from 8:25am to 2:25pm and Mia attends from 9am to 2pm. There is no breakfast or lunch program and children are not expected to bring meals from home, just a simple snack like a piece of fruit or cookies. There is a cafe in Erika's school where she can buy a tapa or drink or something small for a euro or so. Mia has a snack schedule at her school. On Monday, she can bring cookies, Tuesday/Thursday fruit, Wednesday a bocadillo, and Friday is free choice.
The girls have October birthdays which means that they were held back a year in the United States since their birthdays fell after the first day of school. Here you are assigned to your grade based on the year of birth so Mia would be 3rd grade and Erika 8th. Mia had to suffer through a week of 3rd grade before they finally got permission to put her into 2nd grade. We were able to get that figured out for Erika before class started so she joined into her group on the first day. There are no lockers in high school so the students have to carry all of their books back and forth each day. Since their schedule is different every day, they pack their backpacks each night before bed so they are ready in the morning. Erika and Mia receive 3 to 4 hours a week of specialized classes to assist them in learning the Castellano language. The girls have grown up hearing us speak Spanish but neither of them have had to use it outside of the time we spent in Mexico last year. Now they are forced to use it during school hours so it has put a lot of pressure on the girls to learn quickly. After all, this is why we're here. They need to learn Spanish once and for all if they hope to be able to continue communicating with their family. Their Tía Isabel is writing them letters from Mexico so the girls are practicing their written Spanish as well sending letters back and forth. It's probably one of the first times that our family in Mexico has ever written a letter and sent it as well. It's not a very common thing, even before the advent of emails and internet. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of letters going back and forth from the United States as well. I don't care how easy it is to write an email, nothing beats the sheer joy of spotting a handwritten letter peeking out of the mailbox when you get home from school. If you'd like to exchange letters with us while we're here, please don't hesitate to send me a message with your address. We'd love to keep in touch and send postcards, letters, and other small gifts.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Empadronamiento and the TIE

The immigration system in Spain works a little differently from what we have dealt with in the United States and Mexico. When I received my permanent resident visa for Mexico, I just had to receive a stamp in my passport on the visa page and proceed straight to the nearest immigration office in my hometown in order to complete the process. Here I had to get a rental contract and take it to the local town hall (ayuntamiento) and register our residency (empadronarnos), and get a confirmation paper called an empadronamiento. Then we went to the Oficina de Extranjería and picked up four application forms (EX-15) and the payment slips that we had to take to the bank and pay around 15each. We went back the next morning and turned in the forms and payment receipts. It took about 45 minutes to get through all four applications. The girls each signed their own applications and got their digital fingerprints taken. The office is under the umbrella of the National Police as opposed to an individual immigration office so that was a little different. Our region does it on a walk-in basis so we were able to get in and out very quickly. I went back on Wednesday October 14th to see if they were ready as they had told us about 30 days before we could pick them up. They were ready so I was able to pick my TIE (Tarjeta de Extranjera) up and then bring the family back the next day to grab theirs. Our cards are our ticket to a stay within the Schengen Zone for a period that exceeds 90 days, the golden ticket envied by so many travelers. My Master's program is a year long program so our residency cards are valid through September 5, 2016. I should defend my thesis in July but worse case scenario, I have until September so I'll be able to travel back and forth and finish up the program. Somewhere in the next year, I still have to figure out how we are going to hike the Camino de Santiago. Each card has our NIE (Numero de Indentificación de Extranjero) printed on the bottom and we are asked for it all the time! When the delivery man brings a package, I have to provide my number and sign. When we purchase something like a TV, we have to provide it. For domestic travel within Spain, we only need our TIEs for identification and plane trips. For international travel, we'll need to carry both our passports and the TIEs so that we'll be allowed to remain within the Schengen Zone outside of the 90 days. 


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