In the heat of final tests and papers, plans for the next academic year are probably not the first thing to come to mind. But the semester is winding down and the incessant demands of classes will soon fade away. Christmas break is a wonderful time to reflect and consider future options. One such option that is readily available to MNSU students is study abroad. I made that decision last semester, taking Spanish courses at Estudio Sampere in the lovely city of Cuenca, Ecuador.
As anyone who has spent some deal of time there knows, Cuenca is a global destination. To those who have fallen in love with the city and its beautiful architecture, safe and friendly atmosphere, breathtaking natural surroundings, and fascinating culture, it’s little surprise that tourists choose to visit Cuenca. An April 2014 article in El Mercurio reported that the amount of tourists in Cuenca had grown by 276% over the past five years, tallying some 220,000 foreign tourists. Cuenca is also home to a thriving expatriate community. Tania Sarmiento, director of the Fundación Municipal Turismo para Cuenca, claimed in a January USA Today article that Cuenca is now home to 5,000 expatriates. But in addition to tourists and expatriates, the allure of Cuenca has also drawn in a third category: students.
Many of these students come, along with an eager desire to learn the Spanish language, to Estudio Sampere. Though most are young adults of high school or college age, there are students of all ages, from children to retired adults. Some come for no more than a week, others come for up to half a year. Many stay with local host families. According to its website, www.sampere.com, Estudio Sampere began in Madrid in 1956 and currently has five different language schools across the world: three in Spain and two in Latin America. The school in Cuenca, found alongside the escalinata at Hermano Miguel 3-43 and Calle Larga, was founded in October 1995. Sampere Cuenca students have a unique perspective on life in Cuenca, being more than just tourists, but not quite full residents, either.
“I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish,” says Patricia Rea of Sunnyvale, California, who spent six months in Cuenca, taking courses at Estudio Sampere.
“I researched language schools and I found Estudio Sampere. Cuenca was less expensive than the Spain schools.”
For Narlea Lentfer of Grafton, Australia, her time spent in Cuenca a few months ago at Estudio Sampere was a dream ten years in the making.
“Ten years ago, I decided I wanted to learn some Spanish. I looked up all the countries that spoke Spanish and picked Ecuador,” she says.
“It just seemed amazing.”
Whatever the inspiration that led them to Cuenca, learning Spanish has been a central component of all of their experiences here. The whole city becomes a classroom, immersing students in the language daily. Apart from language courses, Sampere Cuenca offers classes on Latin American history, literature, and art, all of which are taught completely in Spanish. The students, who take a few hours of classes every weekday, come with a variety of prior Spanish abilities.
MNSU senior Mikyla Denney came to Estudio Sampere to take courses for her Spanish degree and conduct research for an anthropology project on the Quichua language. She is one of the students who arrived in Cuenca already having a fairly advanced grasp of the Spanish language. At the conclusion of her semester at Estudio Sampere, she was confident that her fluency had increased.
“I think simply just speaking Spanish all the time was the best thing,” she says, adding that guidance from native speakers was immensely beneficial.
“In the United States, when I say something incorrect, nobody says anything, so it’s better when someone says ‘no, it’s this.’”
The language barrier can make the transition more difficult for those, like Lentfer, on the other end of the spectrum.
“It was a bit of a shock for me, because I hadn’t realized how difficult Spanish was going to be,” she says.
“It’s just being able to understand and be understood, really. If I want to catch a bus, [it’s difficult to find out if I] am actually getting on the right bus to the right place.”
Nadine Graf of Basel, Switzerland was in a similar situation as Lentfer, but says that after a few months of study at Estudio Sampere, she is now “proud of [her] progress.”
“My Spanish has improved greatly, from a very basic level to an upper intermediate level. But the most important thing is that now I can speak it and understand it without problem.”
“When I tell people about the school, I say [that] they’re very professional,” says Rea.
“I think it’s a great school.”
Laura Tschaftari of Nuremberg, Germany studied at Estudio Sampere for three months from this past January to April. For her, the school provided an ideal learning environment.
“You can learn a lot more in small groups than in big groups,” she says. Class sizes rarely reach above eight students and classes of three students, two students, or even a single student are not uncommon.
“Because of that I think that, especially for people who are at a lower level, you can learn a lot. The professors are very friendly, the director is very friendly, there are lots of activities, and because of that I think it’s a very good school.”
Apart from their studies, students come ready to dive into life in Cuenca and to experience the culture. The school offers a host of weekly cultural activities including dance lessons, film showings, museum tours, cooking classes, and day trips to sites like El Cajas National Park, Ingapirca, and the Girón waterfall.
“My experience has been really amazing,” says Rea.
“The people have been very kind, and the city is beautiful and clean. For me, the culture has been the most pleasant thing. [The people here in Cuenca] seem very nice and accepting of foreigners and willing to talk to you.”
Naturally, there are challenges and uncertainties to be confronted that come along with having the courage to live in a foreign land. While many report very positive experiences, the home stay experience can be one such challenge. Stefan Klausson, a Sampere Cuenca student from Berlin, Germany who spent time studying in Colombia before arriving in Cuenca, admits to having been frustrated at times by the fact that his host family in Cuenca did not interact with him as much as he would have liked.
“This is a risk of living with a [host] family. For me, it’s just a stark change because my [host] family in Colombia was very interested and talked a lot with me.”
He argues that to adapt successfully and take advantage of time spent abroad, you need to learn to take the good with the bad.
“If you want to see something different, you have to accept that you won’t like [everything] you see so much.”
“Everything is different: the food, the people, the mentality. It’s very interesting,” says Tschaftari.
“[In] Germany we are accustomed to efficiency. Everything works, everything is very fast, very efficient, and I think that the mentality outside of Germany is a little more relaxed. When things don’t work, for a German it is very frustrating. It is very different because there isn’t that efficiency.”
But despite any hardships or challenges, all the students interviewed for this article report being thrilled with their time spent in the city of Cuenca.
“It was a marvelous and unforgettable experience!” says Graf of her time in Cuenca, who afterwards left for another experience in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
“I was positively surprised by how you can become accustomed to a place, as if it were your new home. Don’t worry if you feel a little weird at the beginning because you have to adapt to many new things: the altitude, the food, the weather, the culture. You can take advantage of the experience to the fullest if you try to accustom yourself to the way of life with tolerance for the differences in the culture.”
Indigo Isaakson of Pine City echoes Nadine’s advice. “Don’t be afraid! Try everything. Try cuy, try food you’ve never tried in your life, and try things you’ve never done before. Don’t be afraid to speak because the people here are not critical. You can’t speak perfectly – don’t be afraid of that. Talk a lot – all the time with your family, with people on the street, with vendors, with waiters, everyone.”
Those interested in learning more about the study abroad opportunities offered through MNSU, can visit www.mnsu.edu/studyabroad or visit the Kearney International Center.