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Making a life in Spain

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By Sarah Smith

Point Park News Service

Kristin Allen never imagined that she would be working in a foreign country, but when she traveled to Spain with her high school Spanish Club 10 years ago she found a strong passion for the culture and knew she wanted to return.

This trip sparked her interest in the Spanish language and throughout her years studying at Westminster College, she began to dream about living abroad and perfecting her Spanish speaking.

For the past five years, Allen has spent her time in Spain living her dream as a teacher in El Escorial educating kids about the English language.

“I made it a personal goal to go to a Spanish speaking country and live for a while. I wanted to be confident when I told people that I had a degree in Spanish,” Allen said.

Allen grew up in Mars, a small town in Butler County, with a passion for singing. Allen and her two sisters were involved in many school plays where she even played the lead in “Oliver Twist.”  The charming 27-year-old also tried many different activities growing up. She ended up cheering for 10 years until she found her new love for the Spanish culture.

Allen’s Spanish Club organized a tour for two weeks from Madrid, Spain to the southern region of the country, Andalusia. There, the group made stops in Toledo, Seville, Granada, Cordoba, and eventually ended in Malaga, a province along the southern coast of Spain. Allen had a feeling she wanted to revisit Spain in the future, but this trip sealed the deal.

“I fell in love with Spain and the vibrant atmosphere of Andalusia. I was determined to return to study,” said Allen.

In 2006, she returned to Seville to study abroad. She stayed with a Spanish couple in their 50s and shared a room with another student from California. She had the opportunity to visit some of the surrounding cities including Lagos and Lisbon in Portugal, as well as Fez and the Sahara Desert in Morocco.

“I was excited about moving to Seville, but also very nervous, especially because I was heading over by myself,” Allen said.

Allen received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish in 2007 and minored in Music and Peace Studies. During her time at Westminster, she also volunteered in Youngstown, Ohio with a Hispanic-American organization. There, she tutored kids in both the English and Spanish languages which greatly helped her with her teaching.

But upon graduation, Allen still wished to live in a Spanish speaking country to learn and understand the language better. One of the easiest ways for her to go abroad and work was by teaching English.

“This was an ideal option for me because they asked for no prior teaching experience, but did require for you to have completed your undergraduate studies,” said Allen.

In order for an American citizen to work in Spain, one must obtain an appropriate visa from the Spanish Embassy, according to the American Citizen Services. The work permit is a complicated process, but Allen says that if you’re dedicated, it is worth it. With months of prior research and preparation, she finally had things set with the program that enabled her to work in Spain.

“It’s always hard to let go, but I believe it has given her a great sense of responsibility and in my mind, a great adventure,” said Allen’s mother, Sarah.

From 2007 to 2009, she worked as an English Language Assistant in a public elementary school. She was encouraged to speak English with the students at all times, even when it became frustrating; most of the students were not familiar with a native English speaker.

“The first day of class she made it clear to the students that she wanted them to call her Miss Allen… I remember one day, when students really started to misbehave, that all of a sudden she started speaking in her perfect Spanish. You should have seen their faces!” said Allen’s friend and co-worker, Vega Beloqui.

Beloqui also said that Allen has been the easiest American teacher to work with due to how she adapts to new situations, plans her lessons and deals with teenagers.

“Some may think it would have been difficult to work with us, but it only took her about three hours to blend in,” said Beloqui.

Everything was an adventure, from finding a place to live to standing in line for hours to get her residency documents sorted out. During her first years teaching, Allen lived in Seville with a fellow English assistant from Santa Barbara, Calif. The second year, she lived with a girl from Japan who she quickly became friends with.

“The first year was very difficult and I remember being homesick and frustrated with life in Spain because just like all things, it has its major pros and cons,” Allen said.

In 2010, Allen moved to Madrid to study for her Master’s in Spanish Language, Literature and Culture through a program offered by New York University. She was convinced she would return home after she completed her degree, but her plans changed when she met her boyfriend, Juanfri Garza.

Over the past two years, she’s lived in Madrid and is currently living in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a town nestled in the mountains to the north of Madrid. The town is about 15 minutes from the school she works at, but since it’s difficult to get there without a car, she usually rides to work with other teachers that live nearby.

“I have a spectacular view of the dome of the monastery’s basilica and mountainside from my apartment,” Allen said. Every Sunday morning, she likes to sit out on the terrace with a “café con leche” and listen to the morning bells chime.

Allen is now in her second year of teaching at a charter school called Los Gredos.  She teaches 7th through 11th graders and said she enjoys the higher levels because they have a bit more understanding of the English language. She loves seeing them surpass her expectations.

“Working with groups of kids is certainly a challenge, and more so when you have to encourage them to listen and speak in a foreign language,” said Allen.

She has assisted teachers in the classroom, offered one-on-one support to students, created an English bulletin board that changed monthly, and also planned and produced a school-wide English talent show in which all classes participated.

“I had to take my own initiative to do new things since the program was new,” Allen said.

Her job consists of teaching conversation and communication, but once in a while she incorporates some American culture into her classes.  In a recent class, she gave a lecture about Andy Warhol and Pop Art in which she showed them some examples of his work and taught them about his life.

“I thought it would be interesting for them, given that Warhol was from my city,” said Allen.

She still comes home for holidays and special occasions and is especially looking forward to seeing friends and family this year for Christmas. Allen currently would like to get her Doctorate degree and continue to encourage students to study abroad. The economic situation in Spain has complicated her decision of where she will work in the upcoming years, but she is thankful she has had a positive experience in Spain and has learned a lot about herself.

“I am sure there may come a day when I will be somewhere else, but I am fortunate to be here right now– living the dream that I had more than 10 years ago,” Allen said.

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