There are a lot of places to learn Spanish in Medellín. Aside from the Spanish program at EAFIT, the university where I’m studying, there’s the Universidad Pontifica Boliviarina, Toucan Spanish School, Centro Interactivo de Español, Nueva Lengua, Black Sheep Spanish School, and maybe even more that I didn’t come across when I was looking for a place to study. Clearly, I haven’t tried any of these other programs, so I’m not in a position to claim that EAFIT is the best of the bunch. But I can tell you how I ended up at EAFIT and why it has been a great experience so far!

The reason I chose EAFIT is simple. I needed to enroll in a “certified” program in order get a stipend to support this adventure, and EAFIT’s Spanish program for foreigners is the only one in the city that is certified by the Cervantes Institute, a worldwide organization that administers the official Spanish fluency exam. The basic structure is similar to what many other programs offer — either a regular group course (2 hours a day), an intensive group course (4 hours a day), or private classes. I chose the intensive course, which is almost exactly the same experience I had when I studied in Spain, also at a school that used the Cervantes curriculum. Classes run from 9 am – 1 pm every day and have 2 – 8 students, and each level lasts two weeks. Because we do actually earn certificates for each level we pass, there are written and oral tests at the end of each level. These aren’t too intense, but I get the sense that it’s not uncommon for students to repeat a level, so the program is clearly rigorous.

My first two weeks have been nothing but positive in every way. My professor is the best I could ask for — very smart, patient, friendly, and great at explaining things. She obviously puts a lot of effort into preparing for class, and she posts her course materials on her blog, which is extremely helpful. I’m bummed that she won’t be my professor again for the next level, but I’m sure the other professors are just as capable. At least, I’ve heard great things about many of them from other students who have been around longer than I have.

My class has 5 people total, and we are all from different countries, which is perfect because it means that we have no choice but to speak Spanish in order to communicate with each other. Each level includes a few grammatical concepts and a few “themes” to facilitate discussion. For example, one of the themes in this level is the progress of women in Latin America (this is how I know about the political opinions of everyone in my class). Another is changes in our lives (this is how I know about the love lives of everyone in my class). But we don’t always stick to the themes — many times we get sidetracked and talk about other things. All that really matters is that we spend at least four hours a day listening and talking in an environment where it’s safe to take risks and make mistakes.

 The professors and program administrators are super friendly and helpful, and they make sure that the students have opportunities outside of class to practice Spanish and experience Colombian culture. Almost every day I receive an email about events happening on campus, and we are allowed to audit undergraduate classes. We can also partner with Colombian students learning our native languages in order to get more practice. Last Friday the professors even organized a field trip to a nearby town, Santa Elena, that is famous for flower cultivation so that we could learn more about this local tradition first hand.

But what I like most is that the professors are happy to become friends with the students. Many of the students are far beyond college age, and the structure of the class is very different from typical university classes, so it makes sense that there isn’t much of a social demarcation between students and teachers. After class one day last week I went to the Medellín Festival of Books and Culture with my professor, and the two of us had a great time having lunch together and browsing for books. Another day I went to dinner with a professor, his Colombian friend, and a few other students, and we took turns practicing Spanish and English. Every day before class and during the mid-morning break I sit around the break area (where they keep the coffee, of course) and chat with the professors and other students, and the environment is always welcoming.

I also love being able to take advantage of what the university has to offer, which wouldn’t have been possible with an independent language school. The campus is beautiful, and there is free wifi everywhere, so it’s a great place to spend the afternoon studying or relaxing, especially if I don’t feel like being cooped up in my apartment or trekking to a coffee shop in central Poblado. There is a first-class gym (yes, I had to pay for a membership, but it’s way cheaper than what I paid for a similar quality gym back home) and a pool, as well as a huge library. Like any university, there are guest lectures, concerts, movie screenings, and student group events that make the campus lively.

Given all that, there are obvious reasons why this program is a good fit for me but might not be for some people. I’m accustomed to sitting still and paying attention to one thing for hours at a time, and I’ve never been shy about participating in class. I can imagine that this program would be a drag for someone for someone who dislikes a classroom environment, and private lessons are probably better for people who might struggle to get a word in edgewise with a larger group. The schedule also isn’t very flexible — group courses are only in the morning, and students are required to attend at least 80% of classes. The rigor of EAFIT’s program is great if your goal is to speak, read, and write fluently. But it may be more than you need if you just want to learn enough Spanish to be comfortable traveling in Spanish-speaking countries, and to do so as quickly as possible. Also, I’m super comfortable in a university environment (surprise!), and I actually do take advantage of the campus and the extra-curricular opportunities. For people who are not interested in that stuff or don’t have time for it, an independent language school might be a better fit.

For me, EAFIT had been a great experience so far, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking to seriously improve their Spanish skills in Medellín!