Finding my “Fit” in Sevilla by Katie Wiggins-Gawlik (Fall 2009)

There is a song that many students become familiar with while studying with Semester in Spain: “Sevilla tiene un color especial” by Los Del Rio. Not only does the Student Ministries Coordinator, Sylvia, use it as a warm-up song for sevillanas dance class, but you’ll often hear it playing in the background at local cafes and retail centers as a beloved unofficial local anthem.

And the thing is, the song is absolutely right. Sevilla does have a special *something* that is impossible to fully capture in words or imagery. The architecture, the beauty, the weather, the food, the orange trees lining the streets….un encanto total. But most of all, the thing that makes Sevilla so special is its warm, fun, generous, and welcoming people.

I first studied with Semester in Spain in the fall of 2009, and I had such an incredible experience as a student that I returned to work for the program as the Student Ministries Coordinator from 2011-2014. I still keep in contact with my friends in Sevilla, but when I first studied with SIS, I was worried I wouldn’t meet locals or make good friends with other students on my program. Fortunately, that was far from true; I ended up with life-long friends in Spain and around the globe! If you’re interested in coming to Spain but might be a bit anxious about making friends and fitting into the community, I’d love to share a few tips from my own experiences:

Sign up for an intercambio

My intercambio from 2009 is still one of my best friends. At first, I was nervous to be assigned a local Spanish student to be my language buddy, but it ended up being such a fun way to practice my Spanish, share more about my culture, and get connected to a local group of friends. Plus, I ended up finding some of my favorite restaurants and cafes in Sevilla through our weekly meet-ups!

Get involved in Acción Solidaria

Taking the credited service learning class through SIS was not only an excellent way to further learn from the local community and get connected, I also learned so much about myself and gained tons of confidence using my Spanish language skills when speaking with diverse audiences. Gathering together with my classmates regularly to reflect on what we were learning created a special bond among those of us enrolled in the course, and I even ended up traveling to Ireland with one of my Acción Solidaria classmates.

Practice your hobbies (or try something new!)

Joining a choir (like Sevilla Gospel Choir, which often practices at the school), maintaining your gym routine, buffing up on your photography skills, or taking a cooking workshop from SIS staff Ana Bello are all fantastic ways to build community and make your semester more enjoyable. When I lived in Spain, I took up running and found it became my new favorite way to see the city and have quality time with friends along the way.

Find your church family

Sevilla has several wonderful evangelical churches that are easily accessible by foot, bike, or public transit (and bonus, public transit in Sevilla is super affordable!) Finding a local spiritual community helped me grow tremendously as an individual while in Sevilla. I joined a youth group at my church, helped teach Sunday school, and got to help interpret for a mission group that visited from the United States for a week. Even now when I visit Sevilla, I always go back to my church and feel like I’m “home.”

Don’t be afraid to not travel

Of course, with connecting flights at affordable prices to places all over Europe and the Mediterranean, it can be so tempting to take every chance you can get to explore other countries during your semester abroad. Add to that the affordable and easy trips to nearby cities by bus and train, and pretty soon it feels like you don’t have enough weekends to travel all the places you want! When I was a student, however, I didn’t have much extra money for travel. I stayed in Sevilla nearly every weekend, and it ended up being amazing! I felt like I got to know the city so much better and attended local events that my classmates missed out on. The couple of trips I did take were excellent, but I was also so grateful for those extra cherished days in Sevilla.

All in all, despite my anxieties about finding a place where I “fit” while studying with Semester in Spain, I absolutely thrived during my time abroad. I found a community that quickly transformed Sevilla from a place I happened to live to a place where my heart had found its home.

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Katie Wiggins-Gawlik served as the SIS Student Ministries Coordinator in Sevilla from 2011-2014. Katie earned her B.A. in Spanish for Secondary Education at Cornerstone University and her M.A. in Counseling for Student Development Administration at Indiana Wesleyan University. Following her time in Sevilla, she worked at Ramapo College of New Jersey, where she was able to lead a group of students to Costa Rica to volunteer at a macaw rescue. She then moved on to work at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where she led study abroad programs in Costa Rica, Argentina, Guatemala, and the UK, as well as managed exchange partnerships for Spain and Latin America. Now in her role at ISEP Study Abroad, Katie serves as the University Relations Manager for the US Midwest and Northeast. Katie also volunteers as NAFSA’s Country Coordinator for Spain and the Consular Affairs Liaison to the Chicago Consulate of Spain, helping to connect professionals in the education abroad field with insight around the student visa process.

Located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Katie has volunteered for several local immigrant rights non-profits, helping to manage and staff a 24/7 volunteer Spanish language phoneline for three years. In her free time, Katie loves competitive powerlifting, and she also enjoys traveling, cooking, and spending time with her three Australian Shepherds.

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