Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, is famous for its sun-kissed Mediterranean climate, eclectic architecture, vibrant arts scene, and as the birthplace of paella, the star of its delicious local seafood-based cuisine. For the last 40 years, Valencia has also hosted generations of UVA students who have spent part of their undergraduate career exploring this 2,000-year-old city, immersing themselves in Spanish language and culture, and meeting people from different backgrounds.
UVA in Valencia, the University’s oldest and most popular formal study abroad program, turns 40 this year. A three-day event will be held in September to celebrate this milestone. Attendees will have the opportunity to tour new program facilities, enjoy sightseeing excursions, and reunite with old friends and the people who made the program possible.
If the Valencia program has a figura paterna, it’s Fernando Operé, who teaches colonial and 19th century Latin American literature and Spanish and Latin American poetry in UVA’s Spanish, Italian and Portuguese department. As the founding director, Operé has shepherded the program throughout its entire four decade run, from its modest beginnings to its current state of popularity.
The program was founded in August 1983 through an agreement between the University of Valencia, UVA, and SPU, UVA’s partner in Valencia. The following spring, an initial cohort of 11 students spent the semester studying in Valencia. The University of Valencia supplied professors and classrooms for the UVA students and SPU provided the support and infrastructure.
Professor Fernando Operé with students in Valencia.
At first, Operé had to do almost everything, from designing the academic program, recruiting students, establishing contacts with other institutions, and taking care of the students when they arrived. The program was a family affair—his wife and mother both pitched in to help with the workload. Eventually, their hard work paid off.
“When we started, the number of majors in the Spanish department was low, but in a few years the program grew in popularity and, at the same time, the number of majors in Spanish increased,” Operé said.
As the program matured, it evolved over time. With support from the International Studies Office, the University decided in 2003 to create an independent program. “We secured a building in Valencia to serve as the UVA in Valencia Center and got official approval to give academic credits to students who took classes in the program,” said Operé. “That was a pivotal moment. We were able to hire full-time teachers and expand our class offerings.”
What started as a Hispanic studies program now includes opportunities for students with interests in engineering, athletics, health sciences, and global public health. They can earn direct credit, and the program is now structured to accommodate students who may have difficulty finding study abroad experiences that align with their field of study.
— Fernando Operé
A Life-Changing Experience
Education abroad is one of the initiatives included in UVA’s 2030 strategic plan to prepare undergraduates to become citizen-leaders for the 21st century. Providing them with an opportunity to have at least one global education experience before they graduate allows them to develop the knowledge, perspective, experience, and skills necessary to lead in a globally connected world. For many students, it’s their first trip abroad.
Megan Ayers (Col ’25) attended the most recent summer session and finished her language requirement. At the beginning of each session, all students pledge to speak only Spanish during classes and with their host families. Ayers found the total immersion to be difficult at first, but ultimately worth the effort.
“My teacher was really amazing and patient,” she said. “My Spanish was a little rusty, but she made it fun. She made me feel a lot more confident.”
She added: “It was really helpful that my host mom was very patient and kind and understanding, too. The first couple of weeks, it was difficult because she had a thick Valencia accent. But I appreciated being able to talk to her about where she was from and little stuff like that.”
Megan Ayers in Valencia.
A QuestBridge Scholar at UVA, Ayers applied for and received the Sue & Lee Piepho International Scholarship to attend the program.
“If you can afford the Valencia program, or if you have the option, it's worth it because all of the things you think about the world, things you might take for granted in the U.S., you just never know about them until you actually go somewhere else,” she said. “The study abroad program is perfect because you get to live in Valencia and, even though it's for a short time, you get to immerse yourself and become accustomed to a way of life that you never would have known if you had stayed in your shell.”
Dreaming in Spanish
Janet Russell (Col ’85) was in the first cohort of UVA students who made the trip to Valencia. Forty years later, she can still recall the moment she found herself in new, unfamiliar territory.
“I have vivid memories of the day we all got off the train from Madrid and met our Spanish ‘mamas’ and many of us realized that, despite all the years of Spanish instruction, we could not understand anything they were saying to us,” she said. “I think that was the best part of this program, throwing us into the homes of people who did not speak any English.”
She found her host family to be welcoming and kind. The abuela, she recalled, made a wonderful paella. “The program provided us with various group trips as well as plenty of time for our own weekend excursions,” she said. “I absolutely loved my semester in Valencia. The highlight was a trip to Mallorca, where we stayed with friends of my host family and my friend, Jennifer, and I did not speak any English the entire trip. I even remember that I started dreaming in Spanish.”
The language skills Russell learned in Valencia have served her well on subsequent family trips to Northern Spain, Nicaragua, and even in her own back yard of Arlington, Virginia.
Operé echoes the sentiments expressed by these former students. “The whole experience of living with a host family and signing a pledge not to speak English is key,” he said. “It’s hard at the beginning, but very satisfying once it’s done. The students can be totally transformed by their experience, and I see it in my students all the time. They thank me, say it was scary at first, but now it’s an amazing experience. They understand their own country better when they see it from abroad. They gain perspective.”
An Impact Across Grounds—and Generations
More than 10,000 students have participated in the Valencia program since it was founded, with roughly two-thirds coming from UVA. The program serves as an important training opportunity for Spanish graduate students who spend a summer term teaching in Valencia, and the increased capacity in the Spanish department has led to the creation of a Spanish business minor. The program has become a vehicle for faculty exchange and the University has hosted several faculty members from Valencia who taught Spanish on Grounds.
The Valencia program has existed long enough to see parents and their children share the same experience of studying abroad. Even the relationship with the program provider, SPU, has seen a generational change. Enrique Celma, who started the company that still partners with UVA has brought his daughter Raquel Selma onboard to manage operations, which have greatly expanded since 1983.
“The program changed the lives of many students, it influenced them, it made them more international, more open, and they became global citizens in a very complicated world,” said Operé. “I have received many, many letters and e-mails from alumni with extraordinary careers who credit Valencia for some of their professional success.
“Some of my old students are now among my best friends,” Operé added. “They are my equals as peers. It’s something that I value.”
After 40 years, the Valencia program’s value has become ingrained into the life of the University. “Students have told me that this program is probably one of the best experiences of their academic life,” Operé said. “The success of the UVA in Valencia Program has been one of the most gratifying, as well as enjoyable, experiences of my academic career. Every year we become this little village in Valencia—an academical village just like UVA. It’s part of the UVA experience now.”