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By christinatometchko

Four months, five countries, eighteen cities, and countless flights later, my semester studying abroad in Barcelona has finally come to an end. Traveling around Europe and volunteering abroad have given me the opportunity to experience an abundance of culture and history and in the process have taught me so much about myself. As one chapter of my life closes and the next one opens, I'd like to end by sharing the three most important things I learned while volunteering and living abroad:

1. Nothing is as difficult as it seems

During my first day volunteering at the Pare Poveda Elementary School I was overwhelmed at the thought of teaching an entire class of 6th grade students by myself. While it was challenging at first, it got easier and easier each week and by the end of the semester I was more than comfortable handling an entire classroom on my own.

The same can be said about my study abroad experience as well. At the beginning of the semester the thought of being away from my family and friends, living in a foreign country, and speaking a different language seemed extremely daunting. Four months later and I can't even believe that these things once worried me. Over the course of the past few months I've fallen in love with Barcelona, the Spanish language, and all of the new friends that I've made while abroad.

2. Different doesn't equal wrong

Spanish students have longer school days, two-hour lunch breaks, and classes in three different languages. While a typical school day in America looks very different from this that doesn't necessarily mean that one education system is right and the other is wrong. Focusing on the positive aspects of each of these systems will allow us to create an even better education system that provides the best, most comprehensive education possible for students across the world.

Additionally, it's important to remember that while Spaniards may lead very different lives than their American counterparts, that doesn't mean that one country is right and the other is wrong. Us Americans can learn a thing or two from the Spanish by spending more time with family and loved ones and eating a healthier diet filled with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. On the contrary, Americans can teach Spaniards to give their bodies a break by not eating so late at night and going to bed earlier than usual.

3. The only way to truly understand and appreciate another culture is to fully immerse yourself in it

Speaking Spanish with my friends and host family, keeping up on national and regional politics, and volunteering in an elementary school were just some of the ways that I tried to immerse myself in the local Barcelona culture. Each of these things taught me so much about Spain, Cataluyna, and Barcelona and really helped me to appreciate all of the unique facets of Spanish culture.

Studying abroad is an amazing experience that not everybody is lucky enough to have. If you are one of the lucky ones it's important that you fully immerse yourself in the experience and learn as much as you can about the country and city that you'll be calling home for the next few months. Follow that advice, and you'll be sure to have the best semester of your life!

By christinatometchko

Boy, does time fly! As of today, I have exactly three weeks left in Barcelona, and just two more weeks of volunteering at the Pare Poveda School. I've had so much fun getting to know the kids in Isabel's 6A English class and can hardly believe that my time spent volunteering is already coming to an end. I've had a very different experience volunteering than I originally expected, but it has been amazing nonetheless.

When I signed up to volunteer at the Pare Poveda School, I thought that I'd be working in a classroom with younger students (think cute preschool aged kids) who had very minimal exposure to the English language. I expected to sing the ABC's with them, teach them about colors and animals, and do fun arts and crafts activities.

Imagine my surprise when I showed up for my first day of volunteering and was greeted not by a group of wide-eyed preschoolers, but rather by a class of talkative, energetic preteenagers. I did a double take when I first walked into the classroom and immediately wondered if the school had made a mistake. Maybe they didn't need me to help teach English. Maybe the teacher just needed some extra help organizing book shelves and photocopying papers.  I was debating whether I should walk back to the front desk and double check if I was in the right room when Isabel greeted me at the door and introduced me to the class as their new teacher.

As the students continued to work on an assignment, Isabel pulled me aside and explained the lesson plan for the day. She told me that we would be learning about the water cycle, showed me the corresponding pages in the textbook and workbook, and split the class into two groups-- one for me to teach and the other for her to teach. Not only was I going to be teaching English, but I was also given the difficult task of explaining a somewhat complex concept that majority of the students didn't fully understand in Spanish, yet alone a foreign language. The fact that I was going to be flying solo without any help from a certified teacher only added to my nerves.

After a few seconds of panic I took a deep breath, told myself to relax, and got to work. Believe it or not, the lesson went fairly well. The students paid attention while I talked, actively participated in the discussion, and were eager to answer all of my questions. Each of my sessions at the Pare Poveda school have continued along the same path, and I'd like to think that they've all been pretty successful! While volunteering in a sixth grade class isn't how I anticipated spending my time volunteering in a Spanish elementary shcool, it has been such an eye-opening and rewarding experience and I'm so thankful I was able to expand out of my comfort zone and had the opportunity to work with these amazing and intelligent students!


By christinatometchko

It's hard to believe but it's already been two months since I started volunteering at a the Pare Poveda School! In honor of this milestone here are 5 useful tips for foreigners trying to navigate their way through a Spanish elementary school:

Tip #1: If the directory says your classroom is on the 4th floor of the building, in reality it's more likely on the 6th floor. In Spain the ground floor is called "la planta baja" and the first floor above street level is called "el primer piso".  Therefore the "1st floor" is actually on the third level of the building. Knowing this will save you from some confusion and will prepare your lungs for a bit of an extra workout in case you choose to take the stairs!

Tip #2: Students solely address their teachers by first name and never refer to them by last name. The informality within the classroom was tough to get used to at first but it actually ended up working out in my favor. Turns out it's much easier to say Christina than it is to say Senorita Tometchko.

Tip #3: Much like the rest of Spain, elementary schools have a two-hour lunch break in the middle of the day. Some students eat in the cafeteria and goof around on the playground, but many of the kids that live nearby go home to enjoy a nice sit down meal with their families. Teachers love having this extra time during the day and often use it to finalize lesson plans, read a good book, or catch up with an old friend.

Tip #4: Pop quizzes are common--even in elementary school classrooms. If students are continuously misbehaving and not following directions, teachers won't hesitate to give an impromptu pop quiz. Students cringe when they hear these words but it helps keep them alert and ready for anything.

Tip #5: Get ready to answer a million questions! Once your students meet you and learn that you're visiting from another country, their hands will immediately shoot up in the air. They'll want to know all about your friends and family, where you live, where you go to school, and where else you've traveled. Sharing parts of your culture while learning about theirs is one of the best parts of volunteering abroad!

By christinatometchko

Can you imagine being 10 or 12 years old and having a science or art class taught in an entirely different language?  If you're an elementary school student living in Barcelona, this is the norm.

The official language in Barcelona is Catalan-- a mixture of Spanish and French-- that is native to the Cataluyna region of northern Spain. During Francisco Franco's dictatorship in the twentieth century, the Catalan language was outlawed in Spain and school was exclusively taught in Spanish. Following Franco's death in 1975, the ban on Catalan was lifted and many cities throughout northern Spain re-instituted it as their official language.

Flash forward to present day Barcelona and school is now primarily taught in Catalan with additional classes in Spanish and English. From the first day of kindergarten to the end of their primary school education, students in Barcelona are taught in three different languages and often end up being fluent or at least conversational in each one of them. I can't wrap my head around learning three different languages at such a young age and give the Spanish education system so much credit for recognizing the importance of knowing more than one language in this increasingly globalized world!

It's also really interesting that students in Barcelona don't just have an English class or a Spanish class where they learn about grammar and sentence structure.  In addition to those basic language courses, they also have other classes like Math and History that are taught in another language. While I'm sure this can be very difficult for some students, it's a great way to help them vastly expand their vocabulary and learn the language in a relatively quick amount of time.

I witnessed some of these struggles with the language barrier during my first day volunteering in an Art classroom at the Pare Poveda school. The class was taught entirely in English, the students were required to speak in English, and they even listened to American music as they were working on their projects. As I walked around the classroom and helped the students with their work, I spoke to them in English and was surprised by the vast differences in their levels of comprehension. Some students understood everything that I said and were able to respond fluently in English. Some students understood a little of what I said but could only respond in Spanish. And some students didn't understand a single thing that I said and just nodded their heads and smiled politely when I spoke.

Throughout the afternoon I had to consciously stop myself from speaking Spanish when the students were confused or didn't understand what I was saying. Even though that would have made things so much easier, it wouldn't do anything to help them improve their English which was my main purpose for being there. Instead, I had to find creative ways to get my point across like using my hands to help explain what I was saying or drawing things that I was trying to talk about. While communicating with the students was a bit tricky at times, I had so much fun and can't wait to volunteer again next week!

By christinatometchko

No pasa nada! This phrase, loosely translated to mean "Don't worry about a thing", is the epitome of the laid-back Spanish lifestyle. Whether it's going for a stroll along the beach or taking a two hour lunch in the middle of the work day, Spaniards sure do know how to relax and enjoy life. This carefree, laid-back style of life was one of the main reasons that I decided to study in Barcelona this semester and I must say, it has yet to disappoint!

Don't get me wrong... I love living in our nation's bustling capital, but I'm always so busy with class, work, and interning that I rarely have the time to just relax and enjoy all of the amazing things that D.C. has to offer. Studying in Barcelona through the IES Abroad Liberal Arts and Business Program has allowed me to take a step back and appreciate the small things in life. Whether it's going for a stroll in between classes through Parque de la Ciudadela, running along the beach, or spending the morning wandering through La Boqueria market, there are so many fun ways to spend the day.

While I"m excited to explore Barcelona and all of its unique barrios, this semester isn't just about relaxing and taking a break from my hectic life at GW. At the end of my four months in Spain I want to be able to call Barcelona home and say that I truly immersed myself in this amazing city. In my opinion, the best way to do that is through volunteering.

Back in the states, I'm a summer camp counselor and DC Reads tutor and am looking forward to continuing my tradition of working with kids while in Barcelona. Throughout the course of the semester I'll be volunteering in a classroom at the Pare Poveda School where I'll be helping a teacher with both instruction and classroom management. I'm so excited to work in a Spanish elementary school and see what it's like in comparison to schools in America. My first day volunteering is this week so make sure to check back next month to hear more about my experience!

By christinatometchko

Hola amigos! My name is Christina Tometchko and I'm a Junior majoring in Political Science with a Public Policy Focus and minoring in Communications. Originally from Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, I will be spending the Spring 2014 semester studying with IES Abroad on their Liberal Arts and Business Program in gorgeous Barcelona, Spain. My semester abroad will be my first trip out of the U.S. so I'm looking forward to immersing myself in the local culture of Barcelona, exploring all the other amazing cities that Spain has to offer, and doing as much traveling as possible! Along the way I hope to continue my commitment to serving my community through volunteering in local elementary and high schools throughout the city. I can't wait to get started and invite you to join me on my journey as I discover all of the amazing hidden gems that Barcelona has to offer!