Yearlong Study Abroad Adventures in Bilbao, Spain

I had known for a very long time that I was going to study abroad and I knew for sure I wanted to do a yearlong study abroad and go to a Spanish-speaking country, but once I finally got to college I realized it was not as simple as getting to study in your top-choice country. It is not just picking your favorite place; it is picking the one that is best for your situation. I believe the top things to consider are:

  • What your major is
  • What classes are offered in your top location choices
  • What language level you are (if it’s applicable to your program choices)
  • How long you want to be abroad
  • And other factors as well.

Bilbao fit all of my requirements but was not originally my first choice. However, after the unforgettable year I had abroad, I wish it had been at the top of my list from the beginning.

Interested in what Bilbao is like today?

Here’s a look at the city of Bilbao, post COVID-19 where things are starting to get back to normal with health and safety precautions in place throughout the city.

Preparing for a Year in Bilbao

If it was a viable option for everyone, I would wholeheartedly suggest everyone should do a yearlong study abroad. It takes time to adjust to a new culture and begin to feel truly at home, and then as soon as that happens it’s the end of the semester!

Having the entire year in Bilbao gave me sufficient time to adjust, and then I had the rest of the year to delve deeper into the culture and feel like a true local. Unfortunately, an entire year abroad is not feasible for many people. No need to worry though, any time spent abroad is an incredible opportunity. Remarkably, studying in Bilbao for a year was feasible for me, but that doesn’t mean it did not take hard work to reach that point.

I already had a job mid-school year when I was accepted to USAC, so I put in the extra effort where I could by researching and applying to scholarships. I applied to scholarships offered by my school, I applied to ones awarded by USAC and I even took a shot at international scholarships.

Study abroad scholarships are well sought after and the competition is tough, but I ended up receiving $1000. It sounds small, but $1000 is a big contribution and it does not hurt to put yourself out there for those scholarships! That being said, it was going to take a little more than $1000 to make it happen.

If I have anything to suggest to future students, it is to not let your summer/semester before you leave go to waste.

I could’ve sat around hoping and wishing to receive the funds somehow, but I went out and worked my butt off for them. By the beginning of June, I had four consistent (although slightly strange) jobs. I worked tirelessly all summer completing multiple 70-hour weeks. It was exhausting, but that exhaustion was what made my achievement so rewarding. I was able to live in Bilbao for the entire year, live with a host family and even travel to other countries.

A group of students studying abroad take a field trip for their Basque Culture and Language class
Class field trip for the Basque Culture and Language Class

Living with a Host Family

Often, living with a host family is more costly because all the expenses are included in the price. It may be the more expensive option, but in all sincerity it is priceless. My host family was made up of a 13-year-old sister, and a host mom; small, but never lacking in conversation or kindness.

When I arrived in Bilbao, my Spanish was so terrible that it was practically nonexistent. Nonetheless, my host family was encouraging and patient with me. They knew how badly I wanted my Spanish to improve, so they always spoke Spanish with me until a look of pure confusion would cross my face. This look was not uncommon for me, but as time passed the look showed up fewer times each day. In fact, the most we spoke English with each other was when I was helping my sister with her English homework.

I had much more to learn than just the Spanish language, and my host family taught me so much throughout the year. I learned about the Spanish and Basque cultures, traditions, and they even taught me some of the Basque language! My favorite quote from my badass (excuse my French) host mother is “I know my passport says that I am Spanish, but first I am Basque!”. My family was my family, but they also ended up being my close friends. I could sit and talk with my host mom for hours about traveling, cultures and life in general. I even now send them letters throughout the year to keep in contact with them. (I have their WhatsApp numbers, but letters just seem more personal).

An American student studying abroad sits with two local girls from Bilbao, Spain in order to practice Spanish language.
Me and my language partner (Intercambio) another great way to practice Spanish

Traveling While Abroad

I also found a home away from home when I was traveling for Christmas break. This is one of my favorite stories to tell, and one of my favorite trips that I took. When my mom was in high school a close friend of hers hosted an Italian exchange student named Christina. They all were very close friends throughout the year, and when my mom graduated high school, she spent a month with Christina and her family in Italy. Since then, my mom and Christina have stayed in contact and I remember skyping her when I was younger. We have always been part of each other’s families, so much so, that when my sister studied in Italy, she visited Christina and her family twice. In the summer of 2017, my time finally came to visit Christina, and I stayed with her family for two days while traveling through Europe. While studying in Spain I had an entire month off for Christmas break, and I knew I had to spend some of that time with Christina. When I asked her if I could come visit for maybe a week, she responded saying my room was already ready and I could stay as long as I wanted. I ended up staying for two weeks including Christmas and New Year’s Eve. They took me to Christmas parties, I went for runs around town, I spent afternoons in Christina’s bookshop, and I ate so much cheese and drank so much espresso I think my body is 40% made up of it. I felt so at home there that I felt more like a European rather than just a Spaniard. It is so inspiring to think that a friendship my mom created in high school gave me such a wonderful experience and welcoming home in my college years, and for the rest of my life. I hope those who hear this story realize the impacts of international relationships as well.

Two students studying abroad in Europe cook dinner for their host family
Meeting a friend in Germany and cooking dinner for her host family

Ultimately any relationship, friendship or acquaintance you hold with someone is important and life-changing in some way-it doesn’t have to be international. I’ve said it multiple times and I will say it again; a trip or location can be made unforgettable by the people you’re surrounded by-for better or worse. You also learn so much when you travel by yourself like where your comfort zone is, and you must choose to push past it. Maybe choosing to study abroad is out of your comfort zone, but I can personally tell you that is a boundary you won’t regret breaking.

Tessa Hassinger is a University of Idaho student. She studied abroad in Bilbao, Spain for the 2018-2019 academic year.

To learn about current study abroad options with USAC, visit our website.