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Serving the Community in Spain

Ramon Juarez turned his semester studying abroad in Madrid into a much more meaningful experience

Ramon Juarez wanted to get more out of his study abroad experience than just studying Spanish in the classroom.

The University of Idaho senior from Burley majoring in international studies and Spanish knew he wanted to take part in the traditional study abroad – all such students majoring in his fields complete a semester in a foreign country – but he didn’t know how far in depth his studies would take him at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain.

“I thought that it would be interesting to visit Spain because I wanted to experience a new culture and expand my Spanish vocabulary,” he said.

In addition to taking traditional courses about the Spanish language and the European Union, Juarez chose to take a class that took his education into the local Madrid community - Modern Spanish Culture Through Service Learning. Juarez volunteered for a local soup kitchen and food bank as part of the class to better learn the local language.

“I thought that this course was going to be interesting because it was going to expose me to new experiences and allow me to speak Spanish with people in Madrid outside of the classroom,” Juarez said. “It allowed me to engage and test the current level of my Spanish with locals, which expanded my vocabulary.”

Serving his Host Community

Even though he grew up speaking primarily Spanish at home, Juarez learned how different local linguistics can be from region to region.

“One of the nuns at the food bank asked me to put a food item in the ‘frigorífico.’ In my 20-plus years of speaking Spanish, I had never heard this word, so I just started walking to the dining center thinking that’s what she meant,” Juarez said. “Then, I hear yelling in the background and realized that she was yelling at me. I quickly turned back around, and the nun led me to the refrigerator. This experience was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me because it taught me to be more alert and ask questions when I don’t understand something.”

In addition to serving food, washing dishes and mopping the floors, Juarez was able to interact with different populations than he would have had he spent his time solely on campus.

“Giving back to my host community helped me gain a better understanding about the people of diverse backgrounds in Madrid,” he said. “I had the opportunity to learn about and listen to the stories of the homeless and other underrepresented populations, some of which came from different countries in search of a better life in Madrid.”

He also spent a few hours with classmates distributing non-perishable food at Pan y Peces, a food bank serving underprivileged Madrid families.

“It is rewarding knowing that I helped people in need,” he said.

Making Study Abroad Affordable

Juarez credits his ability to study abroad to the two study abroad scholarships he received from the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences – the Boyd and Grace Martin Memorial Scholarship and the Willis E. Sullivan III Memorial Study Abroad Scholarship.

“I’ve always wanted to travel to Europe, but I never thought that it would be possible because of how expensive it was,” Juarez said. “It wasn’t until I received scholarships and started getting help on my study abroad application that I realized this was actually becoming a reality.”

A Transformational Learning Experience

Overall, Juarez believes his service-learning course taught him values and skills in working with language that he would never have imagined before taking the trip.

“In the end, I believe that it was a great experience because I improved my Spanish vocabulary and speaking skills,” he said. “I know that these experiences will be valuable in my future. Being bilingual in Spanish and English will help me in whatever career I decide to pursue in the United States.”

After graduating from U of I in May 2020, Juarez plans to attend law school and study immigration law. He believes his study abroad experience will help him “communicate better with future clients that may only speak Spanish.”

Learning abroad is an experience Juarez would recommend to other students.

“I would tell others to not be afraid of working hard and giving up some of their free time,” he said. “At the end of the day, the experience is always rewarding.”

Article by Kathy Foss, College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences
Published in August 2019

Ramon Juarez washes dishes in a soup kitchen in Madrid
Ramon Juarez works at the soup kitchen in Madrid. Juarez spent spring 2019 in Spain as part of his study abroad experience.

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