First Steps: UVA in Valencia, 2016

Kimia Nikseresht is a student currently studying abroad through the UVA in Valencia program. Read below for her reflections on pre-departure challenges and her expectations for the semester. 
Today is the day! I can’t believe it’s finally here. It’s funny – I have been dreaming aboutmy “study abroad” in Spain since I was 15. My first year at UVA, I wandered into the ISO only to turn my dream into a goal: I will go to Valencia, Spain for the Spring semester of my third year. Then, I began working on that goal. I took as many Spanish classes as would fit into my schedule, to get my language up to par (or close enough, I suppose). I applied for the opportunity 6 months ago. I got my visa yesterday. And I get to drive to the airport in less than 2 hours. And yet, I’m still in shock. Am I actually about to leave the country by myself? For four whole months?The same way that my brother and I laugh at my mom’s English accent, they are going to laugh at my Spanish. I will probably get lost, get homesick, and get very frustrated.
All of this,I am prepared for. What I am not prepared for is the unexpected. For example, after taking all my finals and finishing out what turned out to be a very academically and personally challenging semester, I came home to relax. I wanted nothing more than to let it all go and just spend time with my family. It was in this mindset that the universe threw me a hint – are you absolutely sure you don’t need a visa? Turns out, I did. This was a Friday afternoon. The embassy would be closed until Monday. I was scheduled to leave on a Tuesday, only 15 days later. If you take out the weekends, the holidays (New Years), and factor in the fact that the embassy is closed on Fridays, I barely had 2 weeks. “That’s it”, I thought, “there go my plans!”
But the universe wasn’t finished. Somehow, I managed to walk away with a visa in my hand Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours before my scheduled flight.These are the challenges that I am not prepared for. Because quite frankly, there is no way to prepare for them. But here’s my outlook – if I want to be a lawyer in just a few years, I have to figure it out. That’s it! One crisis at a time, I just need to figure. It. Out. As one of my favorite quotes says, “the days are long, but the years are short”. Well, the semesters are even shorter. So in that spirit, here I go!
Dearest Friends and Family! While abroad, I will send short updates of my experiences: where I am, interesting occurrences (the weird, the funny, etc), and how I’m feeling. If you would like to no longer receive these updates (I get it – it’s annoying and you probably don’t really want to read it anyway) then please let me know and I’ll remove you from the list!!! Please don’t hesitate to let me know – it won’t hurt my feelings I promise! So here we go…This is my first week in Valencia, España. Even at first glance, the city is beautiful: theperfect combination of historic and modern, mild temperatures, friendly people, and bestof all, conveniently located right by la playa (the beach). However, the beauty doesn’t come without challenges: the homes are freezing cold, the shower never really gets hot,and water is more expensive than wine. Go figure.
We started the week with an invitation to visit el alcalde de la ciudad (the mayor of the city). All UVa students were invited into his office, where we were given the warmest of bienvenidos (welcoming) and his greatest wishes for our journey in Spain. I cannot imagine a better way to enter into a brand new culture.

The highlight of the week was the program-wide trip to the old town of Xátiva, where we hiked to the top of a mountain to find a beautiful castle. Most fascinating to me was the construction of the palace, which was una mezcla (a mixture) of the efforts of Roman Catholics, Arab Muslims, and the Babylonians. And we think America is the “melting pot”?




Staying with a host family has also proven to be a blessing. 3 home-cooked meals a day, as well as companions to practice Spanish with in a very friendly, supportive environment. Turns out, las familias españoles tienen mucho en común con las famiias persas (Spanish families have a lot in common with Persian ones!). Dinners at 9:00 pm, loud and engaged conversations, relaxed siestas (post-lunch naps), and a very strong bond of togetherness.


Here’s what I’ve learned this week:

  1. My sense of directions are AWFUL. After spending 20 incredibly frustrating minutes trying to get my key to turn in the apartment’s door, I angrily stomped off to the elevator upon realizing that I was, in fact, on the 8th floor of the entirely wrong building. Huh.
  2. I am hugely obsessed with my family and friends. While I can easily make new friends and meet new people everywhere I go, I am often telling them about YOU GUYS. I miss you guys more than I could ever express, and nothing but your well-wishes and constant check-ups has kept me sane.
  3. I would like to officially apologize to my parents for making fun of your English. I thought I knew Spanish… until I stepped foot in Spain. Nope. Nada.

Hasta luego!


1 / 1

Previous file


AIFS Granada: A Photographic Journey

Shadrach Wilson is a UVA student who spent the Fall 2015 semester studying abroad after petitioning to take part in the AIFS: Granada program. Check out his photos and learn more about some of the cool places he saw during the semester! 



Photo taken in Gibraltar. Across the straight, the mountains of Morocco rise up in the background. Since the distance between Africa and Spain here is only 15 km, it is a common crossing point for immigrants.



The floor of the luxurious Plaza de España in Sevilla, which is representative of all the regions in Spain. The red lion is the coat of arms of the Kingdom of León.


A view of the historic city of Córdoba across the river.




Murals are quite common to find on the older walls and buildings in Granada as they are a method to add color to the dull, concrete walls as well as function as political statements. Tagging (as can be seen in the first picture) is also easy to find, and a number of murals are painted to cover up these tags or to convert them into something more artistic.



A view from the middle of an orchard in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The trees in the forefront are almond trees, and those in the background are olive trees, which can be found all over Andalucía.



“If no one works for you, no one should decide for you.” The “A” inside a circle is the symbol of the Anarchists in Granada, a vocal minority in the city. Messages like this can be found all over the town.




We spent a weekend in the small town of Cazorla, which is located in Jaén, a very rural region in Andalucía that produces a significant amount of the olives from Spain. It is a very classic “pueblo blanco” in the region (see the second picture) in the sense that nearly all the houses are a beautiful white and the city itself seems to have been built onto a mountain.



One of the unique things of Cazorla is its castle (upper photo) that looks down on the city and is a bit reminiscent of the Alhambra, except on a smaller scale.







Tourism in Cazorla is quite popular because the city boasts some of the most beautiful views from its numerous hiking trails. Additionally, the locals are some ofthe friendliest around.


Exploring Spanish Diversity

Ciara Cooney is a UVA student currently studying in UVA in Valencia. Below is her reflection on some of her travels in the month of November around Europe.

November has always resonated as a month to be thankful with me. In the past few years this was reinforced as it became a time to come home to my family, a celebration of all that we are lucky enough to receive and at school a month to appreciate where we are and who we are with. Now that I am away, I look at November as a month bursting with opportunities and new experiences. However, this does not detract from a month that epitomizes thankfulness, but rather enhances it. This November I am thankful for all the wonderful places I have seen in Valencia and the insatiable wanderlust that pushed me to explore Amsterdam, Xativa, Morella,Barcelona and Port Saplaya. Amsterdam showcased the beautiful intersecting canals and bridges, and gorgeous mosaic street art. In Xativa I saw a Spanish family exiting a beautiful old church after hearing mass, a wreath highlighting a crumbling wall, the sprawling castle that required quite a hike to experience, and of course la bandera waving proudly in the wind. In Morella we wandered through the ruins of the walled city and into the ancient castle for not only spectacular views of the surrounding area but also an insight to lives long passed in the courtyard and castle. Barcelona held not only fabulous street art sprawled on every service, but phenomenal food. I have dreams about my french toast and acai bowl at Brunch and Cake.After seeing the wonders of Gaudi memorialized in La Sagrada Familia and Parque Guell, Inoticed his commitment to architectural art lives on in the city where doors are transformed into masterpieces. Back in Valencia, I ventured out to the nearest port town Port Saplaya that boasts a gorgeous rock pier and beautiful colorful houses that endow the nickname La Pequena Venezia. I continued to be awestruck daily in Valencia, this time by the Oceonografica center in La Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias and la Plaza de Ayuntamiento. Although my remaining time isshort, who knows what I’ll stumble upon tomorrow. 

Morella castle


Mosaic Street Art

Xativa Spanish Flag

Brunch and Cake

Amsterdam bridges and canals.




School during the week in Valencia, adventures on the weekends!

Ciara Cooney is a UVA student currently studying abroad in UVA in Valencia, this is her experience in traveling to the major cities in Europe.

In my opinion an unspoken part of the study abroad curriculum is traveling. The United States and Europe are separated by an entire ocean, but once that leg of the journey is completed a trip to any of the 50 odd countries in Europe is a very short plane, train or even bus ride away. In my four months I intend to take advantage of every possible opportunity to check a few mew countries, cities and sights off. My dad is extremely well traveled and currently the only solid item on my bucket list is to travel to more countries than his 63. Thankfully, this semester has put me a little bit closer to that goal.

Local Market, Middle Eastern influenced from past Arabic contact

Sevilla – Located in the Andalusia region of Spain, Sevilla is a gorgeous vibrant city rich with culture. The Plaza de España was absolutely breathtaking with blue and yellow mosaic accents.

Locks on the a Bridge in the Seine where couples “lock” away their love

Arc de Triomphe

Paris – This might be one of my new favorite places in the world. It is difficult to put in to words the feeling the atmosphere in Paris creates. It has a beautiful ambiance of old romanticism mixed with modern creativity. I saw all the big sights, spent plenty of time drinking coffee at cafes like a Parisian and wandered along the Seine.

Skyline of Florence

Florence – I returned to Florence for my second time and it was just as gorgeous as I remembered. The Ponte Veccio is phenomenal as a bridge supports a street equipped with shops and the view from Piazza de Michelangelo is unreal as the Duomo juts into the skyline.

Rome – Also, my second trip to Rome and while we revisited some sights, I went to the Vatican Museum for the first time. Unfortunately, they do not allow pictures but the Sistine Chapel certainly deserves all the accolades and notoriety. It looked so real and just the thought of painting that on a ceiling makes it even more impressive. Rome showed the beauty of religion and the scope of ancient civilizations in a remarkable manner.

UVA in Valencia – La Playa y Castilla de Peñíscola

Clara Clooney is a UVA student studying abroad in a semester long program – UVA Valenicia. This is her first immersion experience outside Valencia after a week of classes in Spain 

The first trip organized by the UVA Hispanic Studies Program in Valencia provided a perfect separation between orientation and the start of classes. After a four days exploring the city, I felt just confident enough to walk the 200 meters from my Madre’s casa to where the bus waited to embark for the day trip to Peñíscola. The bus pulled into a small beach town jutting out from mainland Spain on a peninsula.Immediately we grabbed our gear and strutted down to the beach. While most of the program laid out on the sand, a small group of us dared to splurge on sun beds for a few hours of glorious sun-soaking. As the heat of the day passed I grabbed two scoops of delicious gelato and made the trek up to the castle on the peninsula. Time drifted by as a small group and I relaxed at a café, while a bridal procession streamed into the Castle’s gardens. We wandered around the small winding streets leading up to the castle, explored old rooms rich with history of papal scandals, and stood awestruck by the views of the surrounding sea and land. At the end of a long, relaxing, and culturally enriching day we returned to the bus where I promptly fell asleep for the journey back to Valencia.

The view of the Castle out on a Peninsula from the beach.

A couple admiring the view of the open sea from a terrace in the castle.

The shades of orange roofs of the buildings immediately below the castle compliment and contrast the bright blue water in the port.

The bell tower as seen from the roof of the castle with the beach and gardens below.

Two classmates leaving the castle with the lighthouse visible through the immense doorway.

A shop display down a small side street of colorful and unique animal figurines.

Bienvenidos Valencia!

Ciara Cooney is currently studying abroad in Valencia, Spain. Read about her first impressions of her new home city:

¡Bienvenidos a Valencia!
I arrived in my home for the next semester after six weeks of continuous traveling. To say that I was excited to use the word home again is an elephant of an understatement. The moment I stepped off the plane and saw Valencia emblazoned across the airport terminal I felt a release of pent up anxious excitement. My semester abroad in Valencia, Spain began with fear, joy, nervousness, awe, and gratitude all tumbling around my stomach simultaneously, the way only confused emotions can. I muddled my way through the terminal with my head down and tried to avoid speaking in jumbled Spanish. After jumping in a Taxi, and struggling to converse with the driver, I made my way to the hotel Vincci Palace in the Old Town Valencia. I spent my first night and day alone while I waited for my future classmates to arrive. However, my solitude did not deter my exploration. I started to lift my eyes from the ground and admire the beauty of the city. I determined not to let my embarrassment with my language skills to prevent me from soaking up my surroundings. The first two days in Valencia included many wrong turns, mispronounced words, schedule adjustments and glorious views. Although pictures never truly capture an experience here are a few that embody my first impression of Valencia.
The view of the street right outside the Vincci Palace as the street lights up preparing for the night as the sun sets.
 Learning how to have a coffee break while studying as my first Valencian day begins. While sitting I observed the relaxed schedule of the community as people start the day slowly.
 Walking from the city center to my new house and stumbling upon incredibly intricate architecture as the sun illuminates the details.
The view from my bedroom window is breathtaking as the city seems to stretch out endlessly.
Men and women relax in the old town city center amidst beautiful buildings and fountains. The easy going manners and schedule of the people in the city is a serious adjustment from the high strung and time orientated atmosphere I am used to.
explore 3Walking across a bridge overflowing with flowers that crosses “Los Jardines” or colloquially “el rio” as it is located where a river used to run through the city. After a flood the river was drained and transformed into long winding gardens. People can be found running, socializing, playing sports and participating in all manner of unique activities here every day.

Annika in Valencia: A Photographic Journey through Spain

Annika Schunn is a UVA student who spent this past summer studying abroad in Valencia. Below are some of the pictures from her travels throughout Spain.

Many of the larger avenues in Valencia have broad medians used as parks or green space, such as this one in the Carrer de Manuel Candela, near my host parents apartment.

A typical, light Spanish breakfast of biscuits (galletas), tea, juice, and mildly sweet Valencian cakes named after their region of origin, valencianas.

One of the many bridges crossing El Río, which used to be an actual river, River Turía, running through the city. After a great flood in the late 50s, the river was diverted out of the city and the empty riverbed was converted into a park.

A mosaic in the historical city center depicting La Virgen de Los Desemperados, Valencias patron saint. Though this mosaic is not particularly old, these mosaics are a traditional presence in Spanish public spaces, serving as memorials to important religious and public figures.

La Mestalla, the stadium of the professional Valencian soccer team, with greetings written in Valencian and Spanish, a visible manifestation of Spains multilingualism.

Script on the side of what used to be an old hospital in the city of Xátiva, nearby Valencia. I noticed similar faded, cryptic typography on the sides of old churches.

The influence and importance of Catholicism is ever present in Spain, shining through even the tightest streets in old city quarters, like this one in Xátiva.

The ceiling of la nevera, a centuries-old refrigerator outside of a castle in Xátiva, accessed through a tunnel dug through the mountainside.

An example of Muslim influence in the castle garden; the importance of water and the aesthetic of geometry married together in a typical Muslim-Spanish fountain.

Typical Valencian ceramics, sold as tourist souvenirs in the Plaza de la Reina in Valencia.

Valencias two most important churches, La Cathedral and La Iglesia de la Virgen, sit right next to each other, providing an interesting contrast between gothic and baroque architectures.

The cup that is believed to be the Holy Grail itself, though the evidence is tenuous, is on exhibit in Valencia.

A glimpse of La Politecnica, Valencias largest university.

The statue of a pope scrutinizes tourists as they enter the castle at Peñíscola.

A view of the Mediterranean and typical white-washed houses clinging to land from the
castle of Peñíscola.

Though very few cities in Spain maintain their medieval walls, Valencia has hung onto two sets of its original gates. This is one of them, the Torres Serranos.

Soccer is an important pastime in Spain; my roommate came across this community soccer game in the river park one Sunday afternoon.

A typical tile, used to mark and memorialized, spotted in the grounds of La Alhambra in Granada.

An example of exquisite Muslim geometric tile design, in the Palacio Nazaríes, the ancient palace of a Muslim Sultan, in Granada.

Though Spain is known for its oranges, also very common are bitter, inedible oranges. These are decorative and line Spanish city streets.

Though Spain is known for its oranges, also very common are bitter, inedible oranges. These A boatride through a glade of La Albufera, a large man-made lake outside Valencia that now serves as an important habitat for birds and other wildlife. are decorative and line Spanish city streets.

Typical Paella Valenciana at a Tapas Festival in Valencia.

A view of the Tapas Festival.

A performance by an association for Eastern European Immigrants in Alicante, a city two
hours south of Valencia.

A Spanish salad with typical Mediterranean ingredients like tuna, tomato, and olives.

Annika Schunn is a UVA student who spent this past summer studying abroad in Valencia.