In 2014-2015, I participated in Spain’s Cultural Ambassador Program, or Auxiliares de Conversación en España. So what exactly does that mean? This post is for anyone who has an adventurous side.
What is Spain’s Cultural Ambassador Program?
There are lots of communities in Spain where the people don’t have the means to travel abroad to learn English in an English-speaking country. So many years ago, the Spanish government started an initiative to better educate the Spanish students in bilingual studies. They started bilingual schools, where teachers teach various subjects in both Spanish and English. For example, the high school I worked in required all students to study science, music, and P.E. in both English and Spanish.
The schools hire bilingual Spanish teachers of course, but they also hire native English speakers to assist these teachers for a whole school year. Native English speakers can be from America, Canada, England, Ireland, or Australia. The only two requirements are that the applicant be a college graduate and a native English speaker.
The application is on the Spanish government’s website. The documents you will need to apply include college transcripts, a photo of your diploma, a letter of recommendation on letterhead from either an employer or teacher, an essay written by you (in Spanish or English) explaining why you want to do this, and a color copy of your passport. There are usually about 2000 spots open, and usually about 4000 people apply. It’s a pretty good bet that 50 percent of people who apply will back out, so no matter when you apply you do have a good chance at getting selected.
The program is first come, first serve, meaning no one has an advantage over anyone else. The earlier you apply, the more likely you are of getting your first choice of location. However, over 1000 people apply on the first day, and the application period opens at midnight Spanish time, which is 6:00 a.m. EST. the first time I applied, I opened the application at 8:00 a.m. but didn’t get all my documents together and submitted until about 3:00 p.m. By that point, I was number 1357 – on Day 1, only 9 hours after the website opened!
Getting Chosen to be a Language & Culture Assistant
First-year renewals get to choose their placement region first, and first-year applicants get second choice of placement region. There are a LOT of people interested in this program, but don’t let this deter you. Of the 1000+ people who apply on the first day, probably more than 50 percent will change their minds. Last year, I applied on the third to last day before the application period closed and I was number 3000 or something really high, I don’t remember. I wasn’t sure if I had a shot or not, but I got the email in July placing me in Andalucia.
Andalucia wasn’t on my list of top 3 places I requested, but now that I’m here, I realize how lucky I am to be placed in Andalucia! Southern Spain, beaches, olive country, horses, Moorish history and castles, so many beautiful cities – the only thing I can’t get a grip on is the accent down here, but once I master this accent, I will be able to talk to any Spanish-speaking person anywhere!
Also, now that I’m here, I realize how wonderful all of Spain is. No one province is better than another, and each has something special to offer. I’d consider myself lucky to be placed anywhere! Moral of the story: don’t be put off by how late it is to apply or how high your number is, you could get the most wonderful experience anywhere!
Where do you want to be? You may think you know, but you have no idea. I thought I wanted to be in Palma de Mallorca the first year I applied, Barcelona my second year, and Madrid the third year. Now, I know the Balearic and Canary Islands are way too expensive, cities are way too international with a lost culture, and small rural cities have exactly what I never knew I wanted.
Choosing Your Region: Big City vs. Small Village
In a big city, you will most likely never learn Spanish. Everyone speaks English for the tourists, and there’s no pressure to learn Spanish. In fact, the locals want you to speak English so they can practice their English!
Everything is expensive and you will probably need at least one roommate. You will be able to travel more easily with more accessibility to trains and planes, but you won’t have as much money to travel after paying higher prices on rent, food, drinks, and entertainment. Renting a car is out of the question with lack of parking, so you will walk everywhere (or take buses). This might not be a problem, but I love the freedom of having a car and being able to drive to the Costa del Sol on a whim.
In a small town, you will be forced to speak Spanish. When it turns out to be harder than you imagine, you will get frustrated. However, there are free Spanish classes in the adult schools in Spain! Imagine learning Spanish from a real Spaniard. If you don’t walk away fluent after that, I don’t know what will teach you. I’m learning Spanish quicker and for free.
If you don’t have the funds to rent a car, you will be very restricted in a small village since buses come through infrequently and most small towns don’t have trains. The bus does come through 3 times a day, and one of those times is at night so I can catch it after teaching my classes, but buses in Spain don’t run on Saturdays. Or rental cars are only 38 euros for a month at the Malaga airport, which is the cost of taking a bus 4 times. Plus it gives us an excuse to visit Malaga monthly to switch our cars.
There are fewer social activities, so fewer opportunities to make Spanish friends. But even in my small town, there is a new gym with pilates and zumba classes, there are plenty of bars where lots of old men in the town go by themselves for a drink, and there is a dance school offering flamenco classes. Flamenco is a great hidden talent to have, especially in Andalucia!
You will be the outsider and everyone will know it and stare at you, wondering where you came from and why you’re in their small town. It’s harder to grab a bite or a drink at a local bar by yourself when everyone else in the town knows everyone and you don’t speak their language to strike up an informal conversation. There are fewer opportunities for private English lessons since not many people in small villages speak English, but that does provide plenty of opportunities for you to tutor English and make some extra cash. You can also make friends that way too.
What is Andalucia Like?
Andalucia has mild temperatures, no snow, and the Costa del Sol is famous with the British crowd for its beautiful warm beaches most of the year. The Spanish accent in Andalucia is difficult to understand, but they use proper grammar (even though they cut off most of the words or mash them together). Living is cheaper down here because it’s more rural. There are a lot of olive farms so the olive oil is some of the best you’ll find. They also grow grapes for the famous and delicious Spanish wine down here, although not as much as in northern Spain.
What’s the Rest of Spain like?
Northern Spain has colder, rainy climates, but beautiful scenery and great beaches in nicer weather. It’s very green, reminiscent of Ireland. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a famous pilgrimage that takes place in northwestern Spain. In the Middle Ages, people walked this route to the tomb of the apostle St. James. Today, people still walk the route, camping along the way. Northeastern Spain is famous for their wine and food, and the Pyrenees Mountains make up the border with France.
Extremadura, or Western Spain, borders Portugal and has many ancient beautiful cities with historical significance. Mérida, the region’s capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Central Spain has castles, palaces, ruins, and all kinds of beautiful and historic things for more than just the history buff. You can find cities like Madrid and Toledo in central Spain.
Catalonia in Eastern Spain is ready to break off from Spain and form their own country, so there is a lot of friction there at the moment. Also, they speak Catalan more so than Spanish, which makes learning Spanish a bit difficult. Catalonia doesn’t take part in Spain’s cultural ambassador program anymore, but besides all the political turmoil, the people are wonderful and Barcelona is a beautiful and cultural city to visit!
There are many great areas of Spain. In fact, there’s not a bad area in Spain so choosing your top 3 regions should be easy. Not getting your top 3 regions isn’t a problem either: you will fit in and love wherever you end up!
Costs of Living in Spain
I live in a 2 bedroom, 2 full bathroom, 2 story house with a downstairs patio and an upstairs terrace overlooking the mountains.
Rent: 250 euros/month
Internet: 38 euros/month
Heat: No heating, we have a wood burner. One load of wood: 70 euros (need 3-4 loads/winter)
Water: 270 euros for the entire 8 months
Gas: Gas tanks heat the water and stove. Gas tanks are 17.50 euros each. Use about 1 tank/month between 2 of us
Grocery food: Between 2 of us, about 200 euros/month, give or take
Dining out: Between 2 of us, about 60 euros/month, give or take. Tapas average 2 euros each, a glass of beer or wine is about 1 euro each. We can both have a filling dinner with drinks for 10-15 euros, but we mostly cook.
Car and gas: The cars average 38-70 euros/month to rent, and gas averages about 1.20 euros/liter. We only fill up once or twice a month, which costs about 45 euros.
What we make: 700 euros/month for 12 hours of work per week. Between two of us, we make 1400 euros/month and we both have Friday off.
My Weekly Schedule
My schedule is wonderful! I couldn’t ask for anything better. I live about a mile from my school which is a 20-minute walk. But the hours are great so I don’t mind!
Monday: Classes from 10:30-2:45 (Music, Science, English, P.E.)
Tuesday: Classes from 10:30-1:45 (English, P.E., English)
Wednesday: Classes from 8:15-10:15 (Science, Music), then preparation periods from 10:15-12:30
Thursday: 1 rotating class on Thursdays, either 9:15-10:15, 10:30-11:30, or 1:45-2:45 (English)
Friday: No class!
Where else can you find a schedule like this, 12 hour/week and make 700 euros/month?
We spend most of what we make on traveling. Flights in Spain are very cheap to get from place to place if you plan right. You can get a round-trip ticket anywhere for about 40 euros if you do your research.
Ryanair, easyJet, Iberia (based in Madrid), and Vueling are the budget airlines. Their prices are low, but they nickel and dime you. There are extra fees to check luggage, pay with a credit card, choose your seats, have a drink on the plane, or print your boarding pass out at the airport. But if you can do it right, you can travel Europe for very cheap. I have now been to London, Germany, Belgium, Holland, many places within Spain, and have flights booked for Italy and Morocco. Still on my list is Portugal, France, Ireland, Zurich, Vienna, and Prague. If traveling tickles your fancy, this job is ideal!
Final Thoughts on the Cultural Ambassador Program
Overall, I know it’s a hard decision to uproot your steady life for a year and move to a foreign country where you’ve never been and don’t know anyone to accept a job you’ve never done before. If you’re between jobs or just need a change of jobs, if you’re easily able to break your lease or find someone to sublet, and if you can still afford your bills at home and have a bit of savings to bring with you, you won’t regret doing this job. It’s a truly wonderful experience, you will meet wonderful people, and your life will be much more enriched and worldly than those who decided against doing it. It’s the adventure of a lifetime!
What are you waiting for?!
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