Experience Inspires Spaniard to Guide Students Abroad

As a teenager studying abroad in the U.S., Jose Sainz ate his first American meal at Burger King. Now, as UMW’s first director of the Center for International Education, the Spanish professor would like to give all Mary Washington students the chance to experience a different culture. Photos by Norm Shafer.


Jose Sainz was 18 when he left his home in the bustling city of Bilbao, Spain, to live with a host family in a one-stoplight Michigan town.

“Being flown out to the middle of Detroit, it was like, ‘Where do I go from here?’ ” Sainz, UMW associate professor of Spanish, said about the start of his experience as an exchange student in the ’80s. But confusion turned to confidence as he got used to American culture and learned to thrive in it.

Since he stepped onto the Fredericksburg campus in 2001, Sainz has pushed to give Mary Washington students the same opportunity he had. Each year since, he has led students to his native Bilbao. And in 2011, he established the Center for International Education. Now, as the center’s first director, he wants all UMW students to study abroad.

“It really complements their education,” regardless of major, said Sainz, an authority on the history, politics, and culture of 20th-century Spain. He earned a master’s degree in foreign language and Spanish literature at West Virginia University and a doctorate in peninsular Spanish literature from the University of Maryland. “There’s no lecture, no class, no seminar that will mirror the learning that takes place 24/7 in a foreign country.”

About 350 UMW students study abroad each year, all over Europe and in places like Tanzania and Peru, Quebec and Shanghai. If a Mary Washington program doesn’t exist in a desired location, the University can work to create one. Only destinations deemed dangerous by the Department of State are off limits.

UMW students “have the world,” said Sainz, who lives in Spotsylvania County with his wife and three children, ages 4, 6, and 8.

He has seen Mary Washington’s faculty-led programs flourish – 18 were offered this year. Students also can gain cross-cultural experience through partner programs with foreign universities or by doing internships, volunteer work, or research abroad. And, for those who come from other countries to teach or learn at UMW, the Center for International Education helps with immigration status, housing, and a host of other issues.

On Sainz’ summertime teaching treks – called “Spain for All” to encourage participation from every major – some attractions, like the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona or the Roman aqueducts in Segovia, always impress.

“You could have read about it. You could have seen a video on YouTube. You could have Googled it or Google Mapped it,” Sainz said. “It’s a completely different experience to actually witness it firsthand.”

Students learn more about American culture, too, when inquisitive natives press them for details about traditions like Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl. Plus, learning outside the U.S. offers global perspective, college credit, and advantages in getting into grad school, snagging internships, and landing jobs.

Senior Jen Crystle, who studied in Spain two years ago, said the experience made a profound personal impact and changed her professional goals.

“My semester in Bilbao has played the most prominent role in shaping my college career,” said Crystle, now a student aide at the center. “Dr. Sainz encouraged me to integrate my study-abroad experience into my professional plans, and it’s because of him that I really began to think seriously about a career in international education.”

To broadcast the benefits of study abroad, Sainz and his colleagues, including Cheryl Mason, the center’s assistant director, organize info sessions, send newsletters, and host fairs. With Career Services, they’ve created seminars to help returning students with re-entry – think leaving London to come back to Fredericksburg – and with marketing their experiences to employers.

It’s all part of a puzzle Sainz started piecing together as a teenager on that first trip to the U.S.

“When I talk to students, I tell them, ‘I’m a product of study abroad. I’ve gone through the whole experience – culture shock, reverse culture shock, learning to deal with challenges,’ ” Sainz said. “I always wanted to take students abroad. I think I’ve come full circle.”