In their four-month Barcelona experience, students felt the joys and growing pains of living in a proudly different culture.
Story by TIM OBERMILLER
As Hillary Anderson ’13 spent her final days in Barcelona last spring before returning
to the States, she realized she had broken one of her parents’ rules. “They told me
not to fall in love over here in Europe,” she recalled in a paper she wrote about
the experience. “I tried not to, but it was impossible not to fall in love.”
The object of Anderson’s affection was not a person, but Barcelona itself. “Like any
relationships, we have our ups and downs, made even more difficult by the different
cultures we come from,” Anderson wrote. “Barcelona isn’t perfect, but nothing ever
worth experiencing is.”
Anderson was among 18 Illinois Wesleyan students who participated in the first year
of a new study-abroad program hosted by the University this past spring.
As program director, Art Professor Kevin Strandberg led the students through four
months of classes and activities designed to familiarize them with Barcelona’s “cosmopolitan,
international” culture and to guide them from their comfort zones toward new avenues
Strandberg, who first visited the city in 1985, remains so fascinated with Barcelona
that he returns there almost every year. “I think there’s something about that area
— it’s like a creative energy exists in that town and that’s really why I love it
so much. There are a lot of free thinkers there, and it’s very accepting of all cultures.”
Located on the Mediterranean Sea, close to the French border, Barcelona is the capital
of Catalonia, one of 17 autonomous communities of Spain — “although the Catalans would
like to believe it is a separate country,” Strandberg says. With a population of more
than 1.6 million, Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city, after Madrid, and the
sixth largest urban area in the European Union. Its mild temperature, stunning beaches
and world-class restaurants are part of what makes the city a huge tourist magnet,
but for Strandberg, Barcelona’s biggest draw is its artistic legacy.
“Barcelona has always been the home of the Spanish avant-garde,” says Strandberg,
an artist himself who teaches and works in sculpture, glass and photography. Picasso,
Miro and Dali are among the artists who spent significant parts of their careers in
the Catalan region. Looming large in this legacy— in a very literal sense — is the
architecture of Antoni Gaudí. The soaring spires of his unfinished masterpiece, the
Sagrada Familia, can be seen “50 miles out to sea,” says Strandberg.
Strandberg arranged for Wesleyan students to tour the Sagrada Familia and other notable
Catalan sites, such as the Dali Museum in Figueres, near Barcelona. But they experienced
far more than sightseeing during their four-month stay.
Helping to plan those experiences was Illinois Wesleyan alumnus Rich Kurtzman ’98
(also see the sidebar linked here and at bottom of story). Kurtzman is owner and director of Barcelona SAE (Study Abroad
Experience), which partnered with IWU to design the new program.
Kurtzman worked with Strandberg to develop courses taught at SAE’s Barcelona International
College that would meet requirements established by IWU’s Curriculum Council. “These
were Illinois Wesleyan courses taught in Barcelona, but with a Catalan slant,” says
Strandberg. The students received grades and full credit for their courses.
In addition Kurtzman paired host families in the city with groups of students who
lived with those families for the entire spring semester. He also worked out most
of the details of the group’s travel itinerary, which included trips to the surrounding
Anderson recalled how, during their first weeks in Barcelona, students “were able
to see the best side of her. We ate the best food and went to the most beautiful places.
… I got to see the ‘postcard’ version of her.” Gradually, they were pushed beyond
the comfort zone of tourists — in part, thanks to a course taught by Strandberg all
were required to take.
“Urban Photography” was an expanded version of a popular May Term course Strandberg
has taught four times in Barcelona. Structured in three parts, students first photograph
the city “as visitors, from the outside looking in,” he explains. Next, as they get
to know the city’s neighborhoods and their home families, they are asked to capture
images of those people and places. Finally, they bring their Barcelona experience
full circle as they take the perspective of “an insider and seek out popular attractions
to take photos of tourists who had just hit town.”
The course, as well as Kurtzman’s itinerary, was designed “to get them to know all
the different parts of the city,” Strandberg says.
“I planned smaller excursions,” says Kurtzman, “so I’d take them to neighborhoods
that I knew they probably wouldn’t see otherwise, and then they might go back afterward
on their own. My goal is for students to see the real Barcelona, the authentic Barcelona.”
It’s often these small excursions that provide the biggest opportunities for growth,
he adds. ‘The study-abroad experience isn’t about us doing everything for the students;
it’s about them growing and becoming more self-sufficient,” Kurtzman says. “Some of
the group’s parents came over to visit and couldn’t believe how much more independent
and confident their children were after a couple of months.”
In her final paper, Anderson recalled how, after a few weeks in Barcelona, she felt
confident enough to navigate the streets on her own. She boarded a city bus, expecting
that it would eventually return to her point of origin, “just like in the U.S.,” she
wrote. “After 20 minutes, the bus stopped. The bus driver looked back at me. ‘El fin.’ The end. I had no clue where I was or how to get home. Two hours later, I got home,
exhausted and frustrated with Barcelona for the first time.”
Another source of frustration was language. There was no language requirement to enroll
in the Barcelona program, but several students knew at least some Spanish. The problem
was that, throughout the region, “Catalan is the official language, and it’s used
even more now than it used to be,” says Strandberg. With origins dating back to Catalonia’s
status as a province of the Roman empire, the language today expresses a fierce desire
After the Spanish Civil War, Gen. Francisco Franco brutally suppressed any activities
associated with Catalan nationalism, Strandberg explains. Since Franco’s death and
the rise of Catalonia as an economic and cultural power, the assertion of independence
from Spanish authority can be seen everywhere in Barcelona — from holiday parades
and huge graffiti murals to the fierce rivalry between the city’s soccer team, Barça,
and Madrid’s professional club.
Along with its independent spirit, students became acquainted with other aspects of
the Catalan character. “In Spain, my lifestyle got turned upside down,” wrote Kelsie
Gleason ’12 in her final paper, in which Strandberg asked students to compare American
and Catalan cultures. “The people here walk slowly, eat slowly and drink slowly. They
take their time in cafes and don’t take food or coffee to go. They don’t completely
disregard deadlines, but don’t have the same urgency to be on time for everything
that we do at home.”
The lack of urgency was sometimes a source of frustration for students — convenience
stores, for example, typically kept hours more convenient to the owner than the shopper.
Gleason, for one, learned to appreciate the more laid-back approach. “I have discovered
how refreshing it is to just pause for a half hour and drink a café con leche with a friend, to people-watch on a park bench or to stroll around different neighborhoods
without a destination in mind. … It is a much happier, much more realistic and much
less stressful way of life, and we could definitely learn a thing or two from the
Spaniards in this department.”
Those kind of small epiphanies are what Illinois Wesleyan’s Spain Program in Barcelona
is all about, says Strandberg. “Seeing the students develop a familiarity with the
new and strange geography, culture and cuisine is really pretty exciting,” he says.
“I remember again how I felt when I first had that same experience.”
Students are already signed up for that experience this upcoming spring term. Carolyn
Nadeau, chair and professor of Hispanic Studies, will lead the 2012 program as director.
Strandberg himself will return to Barcelona this spring to teach his May Term course.
If those students are anything like Anderson, they will notice the changes that an
international experience can bring. After spending a few months in Barcelona, Anderson
observed how “I blended in so much that Spanish people asked me for directions. I
walked down the street with a new confidence in myself. I feel that anything life
throws me, I will be able to handle.”
One thing Anderson did struggle to cope with was the thought of leaving the city she
had grown to love. “She has become a part of me, and I hope that I have become a part
of her. She has changed me forever, and I can only hope that I had the smallest, most
insignificant effect on her.
“All I know is that I will return to her, someday, somehow. That I promise to her