You would be surprised by how many times people thought I was referring to Columbia, South Carolina when I first began talking about my study abroad plans. And you would most likely not be surprised by how many people's eyes bulged out of their sockets when they realized I was talking about the country... . Yeah, the not so rosy past that is associated with Colombia made it really hard for me to convince my parents that it would be a valuable place to learn my Spanish, and if you are thinking of a study abroad to Colombia, you might have worried friends and family too.
Just a little background about the UA in Colombia program, first. It is a remarkably new program affiliated directly with the University of Alabama, which means it is faculty-led and provides you with direct course equivalency for any course you take while abroad. For example, the classes I took during my time at UniNorte (the University of the North in Barranquilla, Colombia) transferred back as SP 352: Spanish Conversation, SP 354: Advanced Grammar and Composition, and SP 364: Spanish American Civilization. That means for 6 weeks of my time, I earned 9 credit hours to my degree and knocked out the first three requirements of my Spanish minor. A really good deal, right? I am inclined to think so.
The UA in Colombia program is one of two Spanish language immersion programs offered by UA through a faculty-led program. The other program goes to Spain. If finances are a primary concern when deciding upon a program, I would say the benefit to choosing Colombia is that the price is half as much as the price to Spain.
The UA in Colombia program is the first Spanish immersive experience by UA in a Latin American country. It had its first successful trip in 2019 and then followed a two year hiatus as a result of the pandemic. Summer 2022 was the first time back since the pandemic, and you can see my other blog post Beneath a Colombian Sky to see how post-pandemic did not affect my time nor my experiences while in Colombia.
Ok, that was a really long intro to give you some context about UA in Colombia. Now here are the reasons why I think you should choose this Spanish immersive experience as opposed to somewhere else.
- Non-traditional location
- The people
- Richly diverse culture
- Second most biodiverse country in the world
- The value of the American dollar against the Colombian peso
- The preeminence of the Spanish language
Now, I am going to explain what I hope you will take away from each point.
"Non-traditional location" - As I stated before, the UA in Colombia program is the first Spanish language program of this type for UA in Latin America. Additionally, it is difficult to find a study abroad program to Colombia in general. With your experience in Colombia being more uncommon, you have something valuable to talk about to a future employer or to a scholarship committee about any challenges you may have faced and what you learned while there.
"The people" - Honestly before my arrival to Colombia, I did not know what to expect about the people. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the people, especially those in Barranquilla, are very warm and friendly and take laid back to a new level. The Barranquilleros (the people of Barranquilla) take life a lot slower. One example that I noticed is that you could arrive to class a few minutes late and not be considered rude. Their emphasis on slowing down within their own lives also goes hand in hand to their prioritization of spending time with friends and family. I truly found this refreshing because oftentimes in the US I find myself tied down with so many responsibilities that I make no time for my closest friends and family. Before I thought I could not, but after my experience in Barranquilla and taking a lesson from the Barranquilleros, I think I chose not. This semester I have plans to focus more on the people and passions I cherish most rather than the endless time suck I always found for myself while on campus or in my day-to-day life.
"Richly diverse country" - This third point may not sound appealing to you, but for me, Colombia's diverse origins fascinated me. Academically, I have a specific interest in the mix of cultural and ethnic identities that can be found in Latin America, so upon learning that the Colombian people have their roots in Europe, Africa, and the indigenous fed my academic curiosity. The consequence of a diverse heritage is a mix of influences on the Colombian people's customs, gastronomy, dance and music traditions as well as a myriad of other aspects of their culture.
"The biodiversity" - Colombia is known as the second most biodiverse country in the world, so if you have an adventurous spirit and want to make time before, during, or after your program to travel or visit natural wonders in your host country, then I would suggest choosing Colombia.
"The value of the American dollar" - Honestly, you cannot get much better than Colombia when it comes to how much our American dollar can purchase. Colombia is one of the cheapest countries you can visit using the American dollar. During my stay, the exchange rate for 1 USD was equal to about 4000 COP (Colombian pesos). As a result, I could buy more things with the money I had for cheaper than it would be in the US. To give you a real world example, my taxi fare was typically 10000 COP, which is about $2.50 in American money. Neat, right?
*Also, just a quick tip, never pay in American money. Since the American dollar is worth more than the Colombian peso, it is possible that someone might try to take advantage of you if you do not know the exchange rate. Also, holding American money could also make you a target. It's like shouting, "Yes, I do not belong here, please take advantage of me!" You can exchange your American dollars for pesos once you arrive in Colombia at Western Union in the Buenavista Mall. Just make sure you have your passport with you to complete the exchange.
"The preeminence of the Spanish language" - Finally, my last point. Now this can cut both ways. It either may turn you completely against studying in Colombia or make you excited (like it did me!). The people of Colombia mostly speak Spanish (and in other parts of the country, indigenous languages), but it is really difficult to find an English speaker. This creates a great opportunity for you to use only Spanish and increase your proficiency, but understandably it can also create a lot of doubt and anxiousness. At the end of the day, know that it can only help you in your Spanish journey to be completely surrounded by Spanish but that it is not the end all to improving it.
I hope this blog post helps anyone with the question "Why Colombia?". Chao!