Ask Amanda Flandrich about her year studying abroad in Spain and you’ll hear stories about missing her train, getting lost in a new city and accidentally booking a stay at an all-male hostel.
A young American complaining after finding herself in uncomfortable situations far from home?
Nope, a Blugold with a talent for seeing the silver lining — as well as the humor — in things that don’t go quite as planned.
“These experiences made me who I am today,” Flandrich, who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire this month with degrees in elementary education and Spanish, says of the unexpected situations she found herself in while studying abroad. “I wouldn’t be as good at Spanish if I wouldn’t have pushed myself to speak to complete strangers.
“I also wouldn’t be as strong and confident as I am today if I didn’t advocate for my family or friends or find creative ways to make do with whatever inconvenient situation I was presented with. These moments are highlights because they shaped me into the person I am.”
The didn’t-go-as-planned scenarios also give her plenty of funny memories to share, stories that make her, and her loved ones, laugh.
“You can’t buy that kind of happiness,” says Flandrich, a native of Cottage Grove, Minnesota.
You also can’t buy the kind of joy that comes with connecting with strangers, who become friends, as you try to manage unexpected situations in a different country, Flandrich says.
She met one of those special people on her way to her first day of classes, Flandrich says.
Knowing it was a 45-minute walk from their apartment to the University of Valladolid, she and her roommate gave themselves extra time to find their way to campus that first day.
Three hours later, they were still wandering the streets, lost, and asking strangers for directions.
“We randomly stopped in a flower shop and asked the person working there if they knew where to go,” Flandrich says. “The woman working there didn’t know exactly where to go, and our Spanish was not the best, but she was kind and caring, and decided to close her shop to drive us there. Luly had no idea who we were but she went out of her way to help us.
“She ended up becoming what we called ‘Nuestra mamá española’ or ‘Our Spanish Mom.’ She was my home away from home. Luly had us over for lunch once a week, made us treats and took us out to eat.”
It turns out that Luly has a son, who was studying in the United States at the same time Flandrich was studying in Spain. Luly talked about her son often, missed him greatly and was convinced that he and Flandrich would be great friends if they were to meet, she says.
So, when Flandrich returned to the U.S., one of the first things she did was contact Luly’s son.
“A day later he was on a standby flight from California to the Minneapolis airport, where I picked him up and showed him around St. Paul,” Flandrich says. “We surprised his mom, Luly, by sending her a video of us together. She cried. Happy tears, of course. It really is a small world after all.”
Flandrich and Luly still text each other regularly and stay connected via social media. Someday soon, she says, she plans to return to Spain for a visit with Luly.
“It’s incredible what studying abroad has done for me, who it’s connected me with, and the experiences it has given me,” Flandrich says. “UWEC provided me with an opportunity to live in Spain, become fluent in Spanish, and meet some of my best friends while abroad.”
Flandrich first fell in love with Spain during a two-week high school trip coordinated by her Spanish teacher.
“This experience turned my whole world upside down,” Flandrich says. “I had always known I wanted to be a teacher, but never had I considered teaching in another language. I fell in love with the language, its people, food, art, architecture and the culture. In the middle of Madrid, day one of our trip, I made up my mind that the rest of my life would revolve around Spanish.”
With that in mind, she came to UW-Eau Claire as an elementary education major with a Spanish minor. She soon added Spanish as a second major after deciding she wanted to be an immersion teacher.
As a Spanish major, she was required to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. Given her love of Spain, UW-Eau Claire’s study abroad program in Valladolid was the perfect fit.
“Honestly, every day just walking to school was a highlight,” Flandrich says. “The city is so beautiful that no matter the weather, nor the long walk to campus, I enjoyed getting up every morning and going to school.
“I’d pass the farmers setting up the farmers market in the center of the city, smell fresh baked bread and pastries being made, say ‘buenas dias’ to the same man who walked his dog on the same street and weaved through the beautiful architecture.”
Studying in Spain for a year also offered many opportunities to travel throughout Europe, excursions that resulted in some of the most memorable of those now-funny unplanned experiences.
For example, as she prepared for her first girls' weekend abroad, she booked a hostel for the first time. When they arrived at the hostel in the United Kingdom, the signs were in Korean and only Korean food was available. They also were the only women and the only white people staying there.
“After many sideways glances and uncomfortable conversations with the men staying there, we realized we had accidentally booked an all-male Korean hostel,” Flandrich says. “Mistakes like these are my favorite kinds of memories because although it seemed awful in the moment, the memories will keep me laughing for years.”
Other favorite memories — some funny and some heartwarming — are from her parents’ visit.
After showing them around Madrid and Valladolid, and introducing them to Luly, she took them to France and Italy.
Their travel adventures included a frenzied scramble to get onto overcrowded trains in a chaotic train station, as well as once-in-a-lifetime experiences in wondrous places, she says.
“I wanted to make the experience extremely memorable for my parents, so months before their visit I faxed the Vatican in Vatican City to request three tickets to attend Easter mass with the Pope,” Flandrich says. “Easter day came, and we entered through the barricades and police to attend the mass, just feet from the Pope.”
While she’s always been an independent person with a fearless and outgoing personality, Flandrich says her experiences studying abroad enhanced those traits even more.
“I learned so much by living immersed in another culture,” Flandrich says, noting that she immediately felt at ease in Spain. “I finally felt at home living in Spain. It was like the one thing in my life I was missing. The people I met, the experiences I had and the information I learned impacted me greatly.
“It sounds cheesy, but it helped me find myself. Many of my ideals changed and I started to refine my opinions and open my mind to new concepts.”
She also became fluent in the Spanish language and developed a greater appreciation for other cultures, things that wouldn’t have been possible without immersing herself in another language and culture for a year.
“By the end of our study abroad, most students were ready to go back to their ‘normal’ life, but I was the complete opposite,” Flandrich says. “Spain has my heart and the last thing I wanted to do was leave. My international experience was the most important and influential part of my college experience.”
She hopes her international experiences also will help her land her dream job — working as an elementary Spanish immersion teacher.
In Spanish immersion programs, all subjects are taught in Spanish, with the teachers and the students speaking only Spanish.
“Anyone can open enroll in an immersion school and it’s a great way for children to acquire a second language at a young age,” Flandrich says. “That way, they will grow up bilingual.”
As she prepares to graduate, she’s grateful to have the opportunity to study both education and Spanish at UW-Eau Claire, Flandrich says.
“I was interested in UWEC for many reasons,” Flandrich says. “Its proximity to the Twin Cities (far enough away from home to gain more independence and close enough just in case I needed a hug from my mom), its reputation for academics, the completion of Centennial Hall (I knew I’d be going into education), and it was one of the best choices, financially.
“The most important reason, however, was ‘The Power of AND.’ I had read so many stories about students who ‘graduated with a biology major AND a music major’ and students who were ‘in the Blugold Band AND graduated with a degree in business AND studied abroad.’ After seeing all these opportunities, I, too, wanted to have a story like that.”