European wishes outside of the Well

by Rebecca Szkutak / Beacon Staff • January 13, 2016

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The view from Leilani Thomas’s window in Valencia.
Courtesy of Leilani Thomas
The view from Leilani Thomas’s window in Valencia.
Courtesy of Leilani Thomas

Last semester, Leilani Thomas found herself at a ranch in the middle of nowhere surrounded by bouncy houses, free alcoholic beverages, and a traditional Spanish running of the bulls. 

Enveloped by her new Spanish friends and a rich culture of music venues and nightlife, the sophomore visual and media arts major said she faced no trouble settling into her temporary home in Valencia, Spain for the fall 2015 semester. Students like Thomas, who study through unaffiliated Emerson programs, remain in the minority of those who study abroad.

Kasteel Well is the largest semester-long study abroad program at Emerson currently, according to Ilse Damkoehler, the administrative assistant for the college’s Internationalization and Global Engagement office. 

Damkoehler said the Kasteel Well program, also known as “the castle,” has 85 beds and is usually close to, or at, capacity each semester. In comparison, around 40-50 students study through unaffiliated programs a year.

The process for applying to these external opportunities is extensive. It requires students to find a program they are interested in, as Emerson has no formal list of unaffiliated programs. Then they must get all of their classes approved in advance, fill out forms and discover if they will be able to get major credit for any of their courses done at a different university. 

Junior visual and media arts major Jennie Cardin found herself immersed in that process when she said she realized her friends were accepted into the Kasteel Well program and she wasn’t. Cardin said she had to rethink how she was going to get herself abroad. 

Thomas also struggled with it, and found herself fighting Emerson to get two of the classes she planned on taking to be counted for credit. 

Cardin said, however, the exciting opportunity to travel and attend school in a foreign city made the application process worth it. After a semester of meetings to arrange everything for her trip, she packed her bags and headed east. 

Cardin said she went through a Marist College program at Lorenzo de' Medici, an Italian institute.

“I was able to go out every day into this Italian culture and talk to people,” Cardin said. “I learned some Italian, and my friends who went to the castle don’t know a word of Dutch.”

Similar to Cardin, Thomas said a perk of her program in Valencia was her ability to be right in the middle of the heart of the city.

Thomas’s program abroad was at the Berklee College of Music’s Valencia campus. Thomas said she originally steered away from Emerson’s Kasteel Well program because she wanted an experience she thought it couldn’t provide her. 

“Living in the castle in the middle of nowhere didn’t really have any appeal to me,” Thomas said. “[In Valencia] I was always in the city just walking around, and it was just so beautiful. We lived close to the beach. I’m such a beach girl so I would always go down to the beach—I even studied for my finals on the beach.” 

Cardin said she also quickly became assimilated with her new city and began to explore the restaurant and coffee shop-lined streets. She said she spent afternoons at the Casa di Dante, soaking in its history, or climbing the nearby Duomo Cathedral to see the spectacular Florentine views. 

Thomas said she also found herself immersed in the local culture, especially the music scene around Berklee. She was constantly surrounded by musicians from the College’s program and nearby areas who became both friends and contacts for potential future collaborations. 

“I made so many new friends and I stayed at dorms with other Spanish students,” Thomas said. 

Thomas said another perk of the program was its length—she was able to go abroad for five months compared to three for students at the castle, because she had a student visa, which allows a visitor to stay in the country for more than 90 days. She said this gave her more time to travel both around to other Spanish cities and Europe.

“I think the only downside about it [Valencia] is that it’s not advertised at Emerson,” Thomas said. “If I hadn’t sought it out, I never would have found out.”