Over the past year, Chapman alum Carmina Portea spent six months teaching and volunteering for local community organizations in the beautiful and sunny Canary Islands in Spain as a part of her Fulbright Fellowship. In April, her trip was cut short when she received an email from the Fulbright Commission in Spain recommending all Fulbright fellows to leave Spain as soon as possible. The country was at a level 3 status of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then soon after reached level 5.

“It was definitely stressful coming home – packing everything in a short notice, and one of my flights was also cancelled. It was not the goodbye I wanted to end my Fulbright year with, but I am still happy that I got to experience six months of it,” Portea said.

Carmina holding Fulbright sign

Carmina during Fulbright Orientation

Portea had applied to Fulbright in October of 2019 after working on her application that summer with Dr. Julye Bidmead from the Center for Undergraduate Excellence. She encourages prospective Fulbright applicants to “take a good look at what you envision your Fulbright year to look like,” in order to choose which country to apply for.

Having taught to disadvantaged communities in Oakland for three years upon graduating Chapman, Portea was inspired to apply to teach in Spain through Fulbright. She sought to improve her Spanish language skills so that she could better support the undocumented and Spanish-speaking families she works with back in Oakland.

In the islands, Portea enjoyed going to the beach, hiking, and taking salsa dance lessons in her free time. She also had fun attending festivals and concerts, including WOMAD, or Women in Music, Art, and Dance. Most of all, Portea loved beginning to truly feel like a local in Spain.

“At the grocery store near me, the store owner knew who I was, and asked about my life,” Portea said. “I was really beginning to make a home there.”

Now at her home in California, Portea continues to reflect on her experience and the differences between Spain and the U.S. One of those differences was the slower and more carefree cultural attitude, which Portea admits was challenging to adapt to at first.

Large group of Fulbright grantees

Fulbright orientation with over 200 Fulbright grantees in Alcala de Hernares, Madrid

“It was a different pace of life… there’s a ‘no pase nada‘ attitude about everything. I had to get used to going with the flow, but then I enjoyed every moment so much more because of it,” Portea acknowledged.

Portea also noted that racial identity took on a different meaning in Spain.

“In the U.S., we are a country of immigrants whereas Spain is a Spanish country,” remarked Portea. “Being a hyphenated American in Spain added another layer to this. Not only was I trying to represent being an American to Spanish people, but also trying to represent being a woman of color.”

Carmina with friends, holding cake with a 2 and a 5 candle

Carmina celebrating 25th birthday with fellow Fulbrighter and Spanish roommates

This, according to Portea, connected to Chapman’s encouragement of students to be global citizens. It helped her realize how important it is to engage in cross-cultural exchange and to learn different perceptions than the ones you grow up with.

“The more we get to know each other, the better understanding we get of the other. And the better we understand each other, the better the world is,” Portea said.

When the coronavirus began to spread, Portea explained that Spain took earlier and stricter precautions than the U.S. did.

“We were not even allowed to go on walks – only to grocery stores or banks. I wanted to complete my final project in interviewing local Filipino immigrants to conduct a comparative study between Filipino immigrants in Spain and in United States, but unfortunately, it was cut short because of our return home,” she said.

Although Portea was sad about her shortened trip, she still feels grateful to have had the experience of spending six months doing what she loved and exploring a completely new environment.

“It truly was an unforgettable experience, and even this shelter-in-place will be a story to tell. I am currently applying for teaching and school leadership positions. Ultimately, I would like to be in school administration, and pursue an EdD in Education some day,” Portea said.

Interested in applying to Fulbright? Contact the Center for Undergraduate Excellence at cue@chapman.edu to find out more about the Fulbright program and other prestigious fellowships and scholarships.