Stories that Shaped Us: Volunteering Around the World

Kira Cordova is an ISA Bilbao alumna and current ISA/TEAN Global Ambassador at Western Colorado University whose experience abroad in academic year 2021-2022 led them to volunteer in several countries around the world shortly after their program concluded.

We reached out to learn more about why they chose to go abroad with ISA Spain and what opportunities allowed them to travel longer before returning home. Check out this unique story below.

Share your journey since leaving your study abroad. How did your study abroad lead you to where you are today?

I studied abroad in Bilbao, Spain during the 2021-2022 academic year (August through May). Starting in October of 2021, I volunteered onboard the tall ship Atyla doing winter maintenance while she was docked in the ría (tidal river) that runs through the city.

I worked on sail training vessels and in a shipyard over the summers during high school in the US, and when my ISA program ended, the Atyla Foundation offered me a position onboard as a watch leader and the experiential education coach during the sailing season, which ran through October of 2022. I accepted and worked through the logistics of taking a year off from my university in Colorado.

Rerigging the course sail on Atyla after winter maintenance with my friend from Sweden
The view from aloft on Atyla

Because my visa to study in Spain ended in May, I ended up having to leave the Schengen Area for 90 days before I could re-enter to volunteer on Atyla, so I traveled around Ireland and Scotland by volunteering on organic farms through the organization WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that connects gardens and organic food producers with travelers–called WWOOFers–looking to exchange a few hours of work a day for free room and board).

After a month each in a garden on the south coast of Connemara in Ireland and in Scotland working with cows on Loch Lomond, I moved back to Spain in August to complete the last three months of the sailing season on Atyla. Our group of international watch leaders and officers guided participants aged 16 to 60 through the challenges of living on and learning to sail a traditional wooden vessel around the Bay of Biscay up to Bordeaux.

After returning to the states to catch up with my family at the end of 2022, I left for Argentina in January of 2023, where I worked as a WWOOFer at an eco-lodge in Bahía Bustamante in Patagonia and got the opportunity to see Buenos Aires and a number of places along the Andes over the course of three months.

I’m now returning home to Colorado to dive into a summer teaching fellowship in Denver before returning to the Western Slope to complete my last year of college.

My study abroad experience in Bilbao introduced me to the critical people and opportunities that have guided me around the world since I left for Bilbao in 2021 and that made it impossible to head home after just a year!

The upper pasture overlooking Loch Lomond at Portnellan, the farm where I volunteered for a month in Scotland
At the tidepools with the other staff and volunteers in Bahía Bustamante, Argentina, where I volunteered at an eco-lodge for two months

How did your study abroad experience inspire your decision to stay abroad after the conclusion of your program?

It sounds cheesy, but my experience in Bilbao eased me into being independent and resilient while living abroad. In addition to opening my eyes to the wide range of opportunities to keep wandering and learning, it taught me to roll with the unexpected and to live and work in intercultural and multilingual environments, skills that have given me the confidence to take on the challenges of traveling and living abroad since.

Painting Atyla in drydock in Santoña, Spain

Where will your journey take you from here? What plans do you have for the future?

I don’t know! I’m learning to live with the questions and keep the future flexible!

Tentatively, though, I’m looking for opportunities to work abroad after I graduate. I’m about to finish my degree in Recreation and Outdoor Education and Spanish, and I hope to work in the field in the outdoor industry for a few years (I’ll likely return to sail training tall ships and hope to work in the mountains in some capacity as well). As a WEMT, I would like to become a wilderness medicine instructor, and I plan on returning to Latin America and Spain to guide or work as a deckhand on boats that offer programs in Spanish to continue honing my language skills.

Because working in the field has a shelf life, I’m considering pursuing a graduate degree in linguistics/teaching and becoming an EAL/ESL teacher in the future, a passion I discovered while tutoring English in Bilbao.

In front of the Perito Moreno glacier in El Calafate, Argentina
Mt. Chaltén (A.K.A. Fitz Roy) in El Chaltén, Argentina

What advice do you have for students wanting to participate in a study abroad and for those who want to begin traveling more?

Participating in a study abroad is an indelible experience! It’s also a huge privilege–I know it’s not always easy to finance or fit into a degree path, but I would recommend some kind of international exchange to anyone, whether that’s a traditional study abroad program or a more freeform option like WWOOFing (there are a lot of great ways to travel and live abroad for cheap–like WWOOF and Workaway or English-teaching programs like Auxiliares in Spain).

I would tell folks to look for options they didn’t expect and to seek out and talk to people around them that have lived and traveled abroad. I’ve discovered the most magical parts of my journey–from Atyla to WWOOFing and teaching bass and English in Bilbao–by talking to people who had already been around those blocks and were plugged into the communities I would eventually become part of.

And if you catch the international bug while studying abroad, there’s never a better time to take a risk and explore more than when you have the flexibility to continue the adventure (and when you’ve gotten comfortable living abroad during your study abroad experience)!

At Dublin pride with one of my North American friends who studies in Ireland

Curious to hear more from ISA/TEAN alumni? Read more blogs from Spain Alumni or explore more about the perspectives other alumni have had.

Inspired by Kira’s journey and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your adventure today!

Disclaimer: ISA by WorldStrides is not affiliated with any of the third-party organizations mentioned in this article.

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

Leave a Reply