When Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Reade Midyette left Colorado Springs, Colo., for a semester in San Javier, Spain, he knew he would need to adjust to a variety of unfamiliar customs.
Not eating dinner until nearly 9 p.m. every night certainly wasn’t one of his expectations, though.
“The first day we got here, we showed up (at a restaurant) for dinner at 7 p.m. or so, and they were like, ‘Uh, no we’re not open,’” Midyette said. “‘What are you talking about, you’re not open?’ I asked. ‘That’s when people eat dinner, right?’ But no, that was two hours too early.”
This was just the first instance of culture shock Midyette and three other Air Force Academy cadets experienced in Spain, where they will spend the next four months studying at the Spanish air force academy, which overlooks the picturesque Mar Menor lagoon.
After submitting an initial application, writing several essays in Spanish and completing personal interviews, the cadets were accepted into the highly competitive Cadet Semester Exchange Abroad Program, one of several international education programs managed by the Academy’s Office of International Programs. The exchange broadens participants’ foreign language skills and cultural awareness by sending them to spend a semester at a foreign ally’s air force academy, taking cadets to countries like Spain, Germany and Morocco.
“My initial reaction (upon our arrival) was, ‘This is great. We’re in Spain; this is a giant vacation. Yes, I get to learn the language and the culture,’” said Cadet 1st Class Janelle Galang. “Now, we’re starting to settle in, and it’s now finally hitting me. It’s kind of a shock. We’re trying to get comfortable and learn the language and really immerse ourselves.”
Learning Spanish is something the cadets have been doing since high school or earlier, and have continued at the Air Force Academy. Each has a higher-than-average proficiency in the language, but as all of the classroom discussion is conducted entirely in Spanish, it’s been a big challenge.
“The phrase ‘Drinking from a fire hose’ definitely describes this experience in so many ways,” said Cadet 1st Class Hailey MacLeod. “Especially being in the classroom, because the teacher is just spewing out Spanish words for an hour straight, sometimes two hours, and I can catch a lot of the words, but it takes 100-percent focus from me, at my level of Spanish, to understand.
“Focusing every part of my brain for an hour straight, nonstop, and hoping to catch as much as I can is what being in the classroom is all about,” MacLeod said. “You come out feeling tired, but I find after each class, I’m doing a little better and catch a few more words here and there. So maybe after four months, the aggregate of that is near fluent (Spanish).”
The cadets are enrolled in classes that fit within their degree program at the Spanish air force academy, but they’re also expected to take part in daily physical training, known as “deportes,” which, like most everything else in Spain, is quite different than what they’re used to.
“You never know exactly what’s in store; it’s always kind of a surprise. But in general, if you have to take a guess, you should put your money on running because they love running here,” MacLeod said. “A lot of the runs have been pretty unique in that we run along the beach and when the teacher feels like it’s too warm out, we’ve gotten too hot or we’ve gone far enough, we’ll jump in the ocean to cool off and do some water aerobics.”
The physical training portion of the day gives the cadets more benefits than just simply increasing their running ability. It’s also where they get to know their Spanish counterparts outside of the classroom.
“In the classroom, everyone is paying attention, faced forward looking at the teacher and a PowerPoint (presentation), but during deportes on the track or on a run, doing a circuit, you get time to talk,” she said. “That’s where we’ve met some of our closest friends here and made connections and got to exchange culture.”
Spain has partnered with the U.S. for several decades to exchange cadets and even instructors aimed to increase future Spanish pilots’ ability to speak English.[pullquote_left]“We have to fight together, train together and educate together,”[/pullquote_left] “We have to fight together, train together and educate together,” said Spanish air force Col. Juan Pablo Sánchez de Lara, the Spanish air academy director and base commander. “It’s very important, and we need to have a basic understanding of how we work and educate and have the same thoughts and way of working. This needs to start at the very beginning.”
Sanchez de Lara recognized the benefits of sending Spanish cadets to the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“They come here with a whole different mentality. The experience they get from there, they share with the instructors but also their comrades,” he said. “It’s a way to change a little bit their mentality and they come back a little bit more mature.”
Like the Spanish cadets attending classes in the U.S., the Air Force cadets in Spain don’t spend all their time studying and exercising. On the weekends, they travel to nearby cities, taking in Spain’s rich culture and history. Their first few days in the country were spent in Madrid, where they visited cathedrals and palaces and dined in the city center. Weeks later, the cadets visited Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, and saw where the famous bullfights take place.
“We were out on the town at one point walking, and there was some sort of musical event, a little gathering and everyone was dancing,” Galang said. “We wanted to join in and we were clapping on the outside. Spanish people are really just happy-go-lucky people and they just pulled me right in and we danced in the middle of the circle. Everyone just wants to have a good time, and they’re very welcoming.”
The cadets have made long-lasting friendships with Spanish and French cadets who are also studying at the academy. They believe their experience learning a foreign language and immersing themselves in a foreign culture will benefit them long into their Air Force careers.
“I think this (experience) helps me figure out how well I can adapt to different environments, different people and different languages and culture,” said Cadet 1st Class Emerald Peoples. “This definitely strengthens my leadership and communications skills, and gives me more respect for more cultures.”
Perhaps the next time the cadets travel through Spain, they’ll remember to bring a snack because they’ll know they won’t be eating dinner until well into the evening. They’ll also be able to communicate and understand their Spanish air force counterparts on a cultural level that would not be possible if it wasn’t for this program.