October 27, 2008 — In the spring of 1984, 11 students ventured from the University of Virginia to Valencia, Spain, the first participants in U.Va.'s Hispanic Studies Program.
In the 25 years since, more than 6,000 students have followed, gaining a singular immersion experience in Spanish language and culture.
Today, the program boasts the same host-family living experience and the same rigor of classes on Spanish language, culture, art, history and literature — all taught in Spanish — that distinguished it from the start.
Much has also changed. What began as a collaboration between U.Va. and the University of Valencia is now an autonomous program with its own facility, an expanded curriculum and a January Term component. Graduate students from U.Va.'s Department of Spanish, Italian and Portugese gain teaching experience and conduct dissertation research there, and a faculty exchange brings teachers to Charlottesville.
"U.Va.'s Hispanic Studies Program in Valencia has become a model of excellence for global education programs," University President John T. Casteen III said. "U.Va. students and students from colleges and universities across the nation who participate in this program become well-versed in Spanish and Latin American culture, history and languages.
"Beyond their academic achievements, they gain a deep appreciation for Spain and its people, and a greater global perspective generally, and they live in one of the world's great cities."
Liz Wellbeloved-Stone, assistant director of the Hispanic Studies Program, was a student during the 1985-86 academic year. She has returned to Valencia a few times over the years and witnessed the changes.
"The biggest benefit is there is an actual dedicated space for the program — for classes, meetings and activities. There's more of a sense of permanence and home that we did not have," she said.
These new amenities and the expanded scope of the program offerings may have surprised the alumni who returned to Valencia Oct. 9-11 to celebrate the 25th anniversary. But they found the same dedication to immersion in Spanish life.
"Immersion is critical," said John Paul Nicolaides, who attended the program in both the spring and fall semesters in 1985.
"My host family consisted of a widow and her son, and I learned so much that first semester living with them," he said. "I decided to go out on my own and live in an apartment for the second semester, and that was even more intense since I needed to do the grocery shopping, buy cleaning supplies, get a vacuum fixed."
The experience expanded his horizons. "Often Americans tend to think that the U.S. is the whole world. This opportunity reminds or demonstrates that there is a lot more going on than what happens within our borders. The European attitudes toward Americans and American politics continue to evolve, and there is a huge value for the students who are living there because it will open their minds, as it did mine, for the rest of their lives."
While in Valencia, Wellbeloved-Stone visited one of two brothers from her host family, now a host father himself.
"It's nice to see the multi-generational interest in the program and the continuity. It's a strength of the program that we have deep roots here," she said.
During the three days of celebration, alumni — joined by current students, program administrators and former and current faculty, Casteen and top U.Va. administrators — visited the city's sights, many of them constructed or renovated in recent years. Highlights included the museum and aquarium in the new City of Arts and Science, designed by the world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava for his hometown; a bus tour of Old Valencia; paella lunches; and excursions to a lake in the nearby rice-growing region.
One group happened upon a costume parade, the Cabalgata, held yearly to commemorate the retaking of Valencia from the Moors by the Christians.
"It was quite a spectacle and ended with a fantastic firework display," said Commonwealth Professor of Spanish David Gies, a keen enthusiast of the program since its inception, who leads January Term missions to Valencia.
The anniversary festivities included a reception at the Valencia program center, where U.Va. Spanish professor Fernando Operé, the founding director of the program, read a poem he wrote to mark the occasion, "A Toast to Valencia" (printed below in both the original Spanish and in English, as translated by students in one of the classes)].
At a gala celebration at the Monasterio de San Miguel de los Reyes in Valencia on the last night, Operé was recognized with a special award: a plaque that commented, in Spanish, on his years of hard work and loyal service to the program.
"He has been a steadfast worker and inspiration to two generations of students who have been to the program," Gies said.
Casteen added, "Our Valencia students live in a community enriched by classical and modern music, great performances of all kinds, unique foods and gracious people who are genuinely good to U.Va. and its people. We are grateful in special ways to Fernando Operé, who created this program a quarter-century ago to meet student demand for study in Valencia. That demand has increased dramatically and continues to increase as the program's reputation grows through the years."
This city is so valenciana,
So personal and so distant,
So bustling and festive, routine, unforeseen
Dressed in chapels and fairs.
So white and so blue
So Mediterranean and eternal,
So Muslim in her foundations
And Christian in her essence.
We raise a glass to Valencia.
Let no one misjudge
Her native tongue and flag
Or her Phoenician hymns.
A carefree city that goes from
Juicy innards to fleshy rind,
Fleshy rind to juicy innards,
Like the tireless waves in a sea
Of orange trees.
Could it be that the orange-blossom
Has traded winter afternoons
For summer mornings?
Could it be that the sea,
Who always retreats,
Faithfully returns to these sands?
Could the southerly light be
The fiery heart of an orange tree
Or the silky seeds of a níspero fruit?
In the midst of a river that never reaches the sea
Though it weathers many storms,
There lies a ship and a garden,
A palace with an orchestra
And palm trees drowsy
With perfume. There exist
Tales of love that never die
And a ruffle of wind
That carries the voices of praying monks.
I speak of Valencia,
A city of Fallas and fiestas,
Who each year, without fail,
Dresses up to disrobe and then burn,
From the ashes
She awakens in March
Smelling of saffron and gunpowder,
Fire and paella
Of nighttime splendor
And fireworks crackling in the stars,
Of gentle weeping
And pyrotechnic passion.
To Valencia, for her beauty,
For her joy and unparalleled heritage;
I hold her in the silvery chapel
Of the saints until spring,
Until after the last frost of forgetfulness,
When the nightingales
Make love in the orchards
And a frenzy of fireworks announces a new beginning.
Tan valenciana es esta ciudad,
tan suya y tan ajena,
tan bulliciosa y festiva,
cotidiana, imprevista, vestida
de capilla y de verbena.
Tan blanca y tan azul,
tan mediterránea y eterna.
Tan musulmana en sus cimientos
y cristiana en sus esencias.
Así es Valencia.
Que nadie le confunda
por cuestión de lengua
y banderas, o fenicios himnos.
Ciudad sin prejuicios que va
de la corteza a la pulpa
y de la pulpa a la corteza,
como las olas en el mar
de los naranjos, y no se cansa.
¿Será que el azahar
confunde las mañanas de verano
y sus tardes de invierno?
¿Será que el mar,
que siempre se marcha,
regresa puntual a sus arenas?
¿Será la luz meridional,
el corazón ardiente del naranjo
o los sedosos huesos de los nísperos?
En mitad del río, que nunca llega al mar,
aunque se vista de tormenta,
hay una nave y un jardín,
un palacio con orquesta
y palmeras desmayadas
de perfumes. Hay también
cuentos de amor que no naufragan
y una saya del viento
para el rezar de los monjes.
Estoy hablando de Valencia,
ciudad de Fallas y fiestas,
que no jura en vano, y cada año
se desnuda y se quema.
Ciudad que no sabe morir,
y despierta en marzo
oliendo a azafrán y polvorín,
a fuego y a paella,
a resplandor nocturno
y petardos en las estrellas,
a suavidad de llanto
y pasión de pirotecnia.
A Valencia, por guapa,
por su alegre y desigual herencia,
la guardo en la capilla plateada
del santoral, hasta la primavera,
después del último olvido,
cuando los ruiseñores
se enamoran en las huertas
y la traca mayor anuncia el nuevo ciclo.