Olivia Elman in conversation with Marcela Hurtado: what brought her to Spain, how to build a home in a new city, hot tips for studying abroad, and why ALBA is (in)arguably the best program out there!

¡Hola! My name is Olivia Elman, I was studying abroad in Fall quarter, 2021, and I returned this Winter 2023 to join the Marketing & Social Media Internship. Over the past months, I’ve had the pleasure to greet the students at the airport when they arrive, help organize extracurricular activities, run ALBA’s social media, and act as a point of reference throughout the quarter for anything the students might need, since I was a student here not too long ago. I had the best time during my term and a huge factor in that was the support of the ALBA staff…

… And today I am here to interview Marcela.

Marcela Hurtado is our student services coordinator, and since she’s such an important part of ALBA, I would love to introduce her and talk about what she does inside and outside of ALBA, and why this program has a special place in our hearts.

Olivia: Marcela, can you introduce yourself and tell us where you’re from and what brought you to Barcelona.

Marcela: My name is Marcela. I’m from Colombia, from Manizales, a small city in the mountains. I studied architecture. And then I wanted to come here to Spain to travel and study abroad. I came here some time ago to specialize in architecture. First, I arrived in Madrid and then I came to Barcelona. I fell in love with the city, so I decided to move here.

Olivia: And how did you get involved with ALBA?

Marcela: I was working with other study abroad programs. And well, there was this opportunity, I presented myself and I got the job. So I’m super happy.

Olivia: What is your role at ALBA, what type of interaction do you have with the students?

Marcela: Well, I’m the Student Service Coordinator. And actually, I help the students with everything, health and safety, housing, anything they need, they want. I’m here to solve problems, basically, and to help them out with anything they need.

Olivia: But not just the problems, we also do fun things… [Laughs]

Marcela: [Laughs] Yes, of course… We do tons of fun things. We go on excursions, go on outings around Barcelona and we have a few laughs around the school.

Olivia: As a student, one of the first faces you see when you arrive in Barcelona is Marcela there smiling, waiting to greet you at the apartment. So apart from ALBA, what are your passions? What drives you?

Marcela: I love many things. I like to work with my hands. I’m passionate about jewelry. So I do a lot of work with my jewelry. I also have two kids, and I spend a lot of time with them. I love nature, animals, and hanging out with friends.

Olivia: Do you have a favorite place in nature that you like to go in Barcelona or outside of Barcelona?

Marcela: I love to go to Collserola, it’s a place that I find super interesting to walk around. I often go to Montjuic, it’s another place where I spend a lot of time. And I also do the Ronda which goes from one town to another by the coast. I also love doing that.

Olivia: And some of those are places that we go on our excursions.

Marcela: Yeah, we go on excursions to almost all of them.

Olivia: From your point of view, what characteristics do you think set ALBA apart from other study abroad programs, since I know you’ve worked for a few programs?

Marcela: So what I love about ALBA is that it’s a small program, and we don’t want it to be any bigger. Basically, a maximum of 60 students here is like the ideal number. You become a little family so everyone gets to know each other, it’s just super nice. And also, there’s more freedom here in ALBA in many aspects. And we give the students a lot of free time. We have classes from Monday to Thursday, so they have long weekends to see Barcelona and move and travel. We have cooking classes in our building and on Fridays, they have these awesome excursions, which I haven’t seen in some other programs.

Olivia: I agree. What advice do you give students who are traveling far away from home for the first time? How do you make a new place feel like home?

Marcela: You don’t have to be scared to travel around and to be in a new place. It’s super nice to wake up one day in another country. I’ve done that so I know it can be scary, but it’s also very special to be in that position. Also, it’s important to interact with people from here, to get to know people that are not from America, and learn about other perspectives and this will allow you to enjoy your time and have fun and grow. I think that one of the most important things is that you get to know yourself in a new way.

Olivia: Everyone is going to have different goals and motivations for studying abroad, so students will inevitably be spending their time in different ways. Before graduating from Cal Poly, one of my professors advised me that gaining intercultural competence is one of the most important skills I could develop in my 20’s. For me this means going deeper than the regular tourist activities and learning how to connect with people who come from different backgrounds and maybe speak different languages. There’s so much to see in three months, but even more to learn and so many stories to hear. I’ve met people from all over the world and even after almost six months of living in Barcelona, I learn something new every day. Marcela, in your opinion, what’s the trick to gaining intercultural competence and making the most of your time here?

Marcela: I think it’s important to learn a little bit of the language. It’s very easy and super important while you’re in another part of the world where they speak Spanish, to learn Spanish. Also, it’s important to be open-minded. Everything is going to be different. The schedules are different, the food is different, the apartments are different, the way of living is different, the time we go to bed, the time we wake up; everything! It’s going to change your perspective. It’s possible that before now, you’ve always lived the same way, so it’s important to be open to all these changes, and enjoy them. I always say that when you go back home it’s going to be more difficult to get back into your old routine after you get used to life here in Barcelona.

Olivia: Yeah, even if it’s difficult at first, when you leave you might miss all of those little things.

Marcela: Well, actually I’m from Colombia, so I also had a huge culture shock coming here. 

Olivia: What was the biggest difference that you remember when you first arrived here?

Marcela: Everything, especially the schedules. When to go and buy groceries, how people talk, how people express themselves, how they move, and the way they go out late at night. The food too. I always went out to buy groceries in the supermarkets, but they would be closed because they were doing the siesta at that time. So I was like… oh my god, [laughs] not everything here is open 24/7!? You don’t find that. In Colombia, we are more ‘Americanized.’ I don’t know if that word is used but what I’m saying is that coming from Colombia seems more or less the same as coming from the U.S.

Olivia: Last question: If you had to define ALBA in one word, what would it be?

Marcela: Freedom.

Olivia: Nice! I like that.

Marcela: Yeah it’s super relaxed and open-minded. I think the students feel free here. We’re always here with them but never on top of or hovering over them. I think it’s a nice thing.

Olivia: Thank you, Marcela; your point of view, enthusiasm and positive energy are always appreciated.

As you exit this webpage and enter your daydream about traveling to Barcelona, I want to leave you thinking about what makes life feel full. Next time you are in an unfamiliar place, you can ground yourself by connecting with people. I always find connections and common interests by talking to enough people because although the world feels big, I like to welcome the possibility of joining communities anywhere.