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)

Monday, July 26, 2021

How I Studied Abroad with a Family Part I

I surely can't be a pioneer in this experience but until I find someone else, I'd love to share our adventure in the hopes that other parents will be able to take the major leap of faith. Our family packed up our home and moved from Bend, Oregon to Salamanca, Spain in September 2015 where I did a Master in Advanced English Studies program at the Universidad de Salamanca.

CHOOSING THE LOCATION:
I chose Spain as the country where I wanted to study because we're a Mexican-American family and I wanted to put my children in the local public schools so they could improve their Spanish language abilities and so that my husband who is a monolingual Spanish speaker would feel most comfortable as he'd be taking on the role of stay at home dad. I researched the regions of Spain because there are many different dialects spoken and I wanted the cleanest version and that is how I selected Salamanca in the Castilla y Leon region. With a population of 230,000, it also offered all the amenities that I was looking for.

SELECTING THE UNIVERSITY:
There are two universities in town; one public and one private. Depending on the course that you are looking for, the language requirements will dictate what level of fluency will be needed. Universidad de Salamanca (USAL) offered this Master's program completely in English with some classes available in Spanish if you so chose. I definitely recommend having someone on the ground who either speaks the local language or having a basic ability as there are many tasks that needed to be done in Spanish. If you plan to use your degree elsewhere, it's important to select an accredited university that is well known and respected.

APPLYING TO THE UNIVERSITY:
Applying to the University itself was one of the easiest things that I've ever done in my life. It was a simple one page form and attaching copies of all of my transcripts. There was no essay or struggle to be accepted. In my opinion, applicants are accepted as long as they provide all of the required documentation. The hardest part involved getting my US Bachelor's degree recognized by USAL for enrollment. You can look here for a more in-depth look at what was entailed with this process: Applying for Degree Recognition in Spain. I chose to get my degree reviewed and approved by the specific university. There does exist an option to have it reviewed by a national entity and you can use it at any university. This process can take several months though so I opted out of it. The process took approximately 5 weeks from the time I mailed the packet until I received the official acceptance letter. Many students in my cohort were able to be admitted on a provisional basis while they awaited the completion of their degree recognition. Spain is unique in that I had to get all of our documents translated by an approved and certified translator that I selected off a list published by the government. A wee bit annoying when you're bilingual and fully capable of doing it yourself.

APPLYING FOR THE VISAS:
I've dealt with immigration on a very intimate basis as I married a man who emigrated to the United States without a visa many many years ago. I'm familiar with complicated forms, long waits, confusing answers, and expensive fees every time you turn around. Applying to Spain for a student visa was almost too easy. There are many Spanish Consulates and each state falls under a specific Consulate's jurisdiction. We fall under the one located in San Francisco. Each Consulate has their own individual website that outlines the requirements for a specific visa. I searched through the websites of many different consulates so that I'd be best prepared for the appointments. Our Consulate required a background check (FBI or state), a medical certificate which I prepared based on a template I found on a different Consulates page, birth certificate and marriage certificate (certified and with apostille), health coverage that had a zero deductible and covered repatriation of our remains, visa applications, passports, passport photos, and applicable fees. Our complete experience there is outlined here: The Spanish Consulate in San Francisco.

FUNDING OUR TRAVELS:
Money is the biggest question and concern when you leave your stable home. Spain required that we show a monthly income of approximately $1600 or an equal amount in savings for our family of 4. I had to show 532,51€ for myself, 399,38€ for Jose, and 266,26€ for each child. That added up to a total of 1464,41€. I had to research the actual dollar amounts on the Spanish government pages because the Consulates don't like to be so transparent. I printed off the rules in Spanish and took them to the Consulate with me just in case. Since I knew what the rules were, I was not questioned when I gave my income verification. In our case, we showed a monthly income of $1700 in addition to $10,000 in a savings account. If you don't have a monthly income, you'd need to have the full amount to cover the length of your stay. This income can come from a variety of sources as long as you can document it. We plan to formally rent out our home the next time we move overseas as many countries require a higher level of income to qualify for a resident visa.

OUR HOME BASE:
It was pretty easy to research an average rental cost for the area that we were moving to. University towns are used to students coming and going so there are tons of rentals available. We only rented an AirBnB for one week upon arrival as we planned to find a rental in person. We knew that we needed a piso with 3 bedrooms so that we could have a spare room for visitors or the girls could have their own room if they finally reached that point in their relationship. Pisos in the town of Salamanca averaged around 500-600€ while a piso in the neighboring town only 2 miles away averaged 300-400€/mo. Since I would be the only one commuting, I didn't mind taking a bus to class in exchange for saving a couple hundred euros a month. We decided to settle in Santa Marta de Tormes so that's where I rented the first week's lodging. There were For Rent signs everywhere so I had my husband call and he was shut down time after time. We finally gave up and used a real estate office. The first company showed us a piso that was stuck in the 60's and not officially registered as a rental so that was a no-go immediately. The next office showed us a piso overlooking the river and that was it. We signed a one year lease on a 3 bedroom piso for only 350€/mo. We moved in a week later. The town's population was 15,000 so we could walk everywhere we needed and it was the right fit for us.

REGISTERING IN SPAIN:
We arrived in Spain ten days before the elementary school started so that we'd have a chance to find a home, get them registered, open up a bank account, and stock up the empty home. The visas that are issued by the Spanish Consulate are only valid for a short period of time. You have to obtain a lawful lease and register your family with the local town hall. We lucked out and got an amazing landlady who picked us up and took us all over to take care of everything. With all of our documents in hand, we were able to get registered in Spain and receive our long term residence cards in a month. This process is described in more detail here: Empadronamiento and the TIE.

KIDS IN LOCAL SCHOOL:
This was a huge experience for us and it's best to read my snapshot located here: The Cost$ of Public $chool. It ended up being a very bad experience for us and we withdrew both girls from public school in April under the threat of the Guardia Civil being sent to our house because homeschool is not legal in Spain. The teachers did not appear to care about their students at all. It felt more like it was a paycheck and that's it. My high schooler was shocked at the way teachers yelled and bullied kids in the classroom, made fun of and mocked them, and in general did not behave in the professional manner that she had been accustomed to in the United States. It was extreme enough that my elementary child was not allowed sufficient access to the restrooms and no adult took care of her if she had an accident. She was allowed to sit in it until the end of the day, no parent was notified, no clean dry clothes were offered, nothing.

MY UNIVERSITY EXPERIENCE:
This was probably one of the biggest eye openers for me ever. Forget culture shock. Coming from the US, I had the mentality that classes are taken on a set schedule all semester long. You register for your classes, you pick up your stack of expensive books at the college bookstore, and you put your nose to the grind for the next year. This experience was anything but. I had the list of classes that I needed in order to complete the requirements for my Master's and that was it. Everything else followed along the lines of "no pasa nada," almost like "relax, don't worry, everything will work itself out." There were no books. If there was anything to be read, we were emailed a pdf document or given copies. Classes were assigned in segments so I might have two classes for two to four weeks or no classes for six weeks. And it's not class every single day either. There was so much time available and I wasn't having to stay up until midnight trying to cram everything into 24 hours. There were nine different countries represented in my cohort of 25 students and being bilingual was the norm; many of my classmates spoke multiple languages. In a two and half hour class, we'd take a half hour break in the middle and wander across to the cafe for a beer/wine and a tapa before going back to class, professor and students alike. I was able to complete a one year Master's degree in 9 months and defend my thesis via videocall in September. 

To be continued...

 

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