Leaned against the towering pillars of rain-weathered stone that rose into an interlocking pattern of arches, he stood staring in awe at the structure. Through each arch he caught a glimpse of the Spanish sky — DaVinci-Esque sheets of white velvet superimposed on a blue sky.
And as he walked in the shadow of the Roman aqueduct — in all its glory — Spanish teacher Kurt Gulbro was finally able to see the Spanish city of Segovia for everything it stood for. The history. The culture. The architecture.
Spain is often considered a land of revelation and self-discovery, a popular tourist destination that receives the second most annual visitors in the world. And for Gulbro, the time he spent in Spain as part of a study-abroad and immersion program — along with traveling the country — proved to be what cemented his Spanish-speaking abilities and made him proud to be a language teacher.
“I had always wanted to go to Spain and see the museums, architecture, and history … and I wasn’t married and I didn’t have any kids, so it just felt right to go spend the summer in Madrid,” Gulbro explains, his soft eyes gleaming as a smile crept across his face.
He leans back against the leather seams of a chair in his office, the dark blue from his polo juxtaposing the light blonde of his hair and the nonchalant attitude he exudes. He shifts in his chair as he delves into the logistics of his trip, a program run by the Modern Language Studies Abroad agency that allowed him to spend one month in Spain and take master-level classes at the University of Madrid.
Prior to the program, he was teaching Spanish at Ashton Franklin Center — a small, public high school with about 100 students — and while he had taken up teaching as a career, it never felt like his true passion.
“Well, I had been teaching Spanish for two years, but I had not studied to be a Spanish teacher, I just kind of backed into the job,” Gulbro recalls, a bashful expression painted across his lightly freckled face. “[Through the program] I was able to master my Spanish and I gained a lot more knowledge and confidence.”
The program took place during July of 1995 and from his very first step into the country, Gulbro had been transported to an entirely new world. The culture shock — from obvious changes like the language to more nuanced ones like daily routines — added an exciting element of serendipity to Gulbro’s trip.
“The fact that everything was in Spanish, everyone was speaking Spanish, all the announcements were in Spanish, all the signs were in Spanish, just totally immersed me in the language. It was this kind of excitement that I’m here and I can’t wait to experience everything,” Gulbro reminisces, his lips drawn into a wistful smile as he stares off into the distance — into the past, perhaps. “The other cool thing was immediately getting caught up in that Spanish lifestyle that hey you’re going to eat 5 meals a day, dinner is at 10pm, you’re going to take a nap after lunch.”
Experiencing the culture and allowing his sheer curiosity to transcend any linguistic or mental barriers he faced, Gulbro took every advantage to explore the country during his time there. Gulbro travelled to notable Spanish cities across the country, ranging from Arabic-influenced Sevilla and Granada in the South to more-touristed Barcelona in the North.
“One time, we were in this museum in Seville, it was more of a castle actually, and I asked about this roped off room and the tour guide said that this is where Columbus signed the contract with Fernidand and Isabelle. And I’m like ‘That happened here?!’ It’s just this idea about history pressing upon you and it was cool to be in these places where, literally, the world was changed forever. And that was just really, really cool,” Gulbro says, his appreciation for history radiating through the fire burning in his eyes.
Although the prospect of living abroad — even for a month — might seem daunting to some, Gulbro finds energy and motivation in exploring new places and meeting new people. He had previous experience from traveling to Mexico and Venezuela, but it was truly the people of Spain that made his experience as enriching and enjoyable as he describes it to be.
“A few times people didn’t really think we spoke Spanish so they started saying bad things about us. But, whatever, it happens in America too, it happens in every language. Spain was very welcoming and they really love Americans, especially if you speak the language. It’s when Americans go and are angry that no one speaks English, that people get mad. It was absolutely welcoming,” Gulbro says, a sullen expression briefly exchanged for a reassuring grin as he gestures subtly in the air.
And sitting here amidst the rolling flatlands and cornfields of Oswego, Illinois, a world language department chair for 17 years and a Spanish teacher for 24, the metaphorical residue left from his trip is beyond present. Gulbro has managed to keep the heart and soul of his trip beating inside himself and his students even 25 years later — which junior Kayla Bonkowski especially appreciates.
“Mr. Gulbro shared many of his experiences studying abroad in Spain and it really helped me understand the culture. He helped me connect Spanish to the real world … [and] the way he described everything made me feel like I was actually there and it helped me remember key things like a word in Spanish or ways to describe things,” Bonkowski recalls of her Spanish 1 class with Gulbro last year, a certain happiness radiating from her endearing voice and arching smile.
Aside from the vivid stories he returned with, the trip was an impetus for Gulbro to travel and explore not only the world, but himself. And by adopting various aspects of the Spanish culture into his own life, it seems that Gulbro has never even left Spain in the first place.
“Living in another country more so than traveling abroad gives you a perspective that not everyone lives the way we do … You start to think about what you can take from this culture and apply into your own life to make it better,” Gulbro exclaims proudly, his vibrantly cerulean eyes glinting under the room’s warm lighting. “In Spain they’re so laid back here in the U.S. we have such a rush-around and high-stress society. In Spain they’re like let’s take a nap in the middle of the day. I think I came back more laid back.”
Acting as the department chair of the world language department, it’s important for Gulbro to be not only well-versed in Spanish, but have an overall open-minded perspective and worldly outlook. And it seems that the laid-back attitude that Gulbro brought back from Spain, is infectious — especially for colleague and fellow Spanish teacher Paisley Suarez.
“He cares [about his students] and he thinks before he speaks. He’s not reactive, instead, he’s proactive … He’s super relaxed and peaceful, which you might find in places abroad but you definitely don’t here,” Suarez says, a small yet noticeable smile quickly gracing her face.
With the impact Gulbro’s study abroad in Spain has had on himself and students and teachers alike, it’s certain that the world is at his disposal. Once an out-of-the-blue event that he would partake in, Gulbro’s love and appreciation for travel has proliferated into a beloved hobby.
“Spain opened my eyes to what’s out there and kind of fed the travel desire — or the travel beast — to me, to want to travel and do the non-touristy things. To take the metro, hang out with locals, and go to places that aren’t in the book and go see how cool new places and people can be,” Gulbro explains. “Every time I’ve traveled abroad — whether it’s Japan, Morocco, Spain, Costa Rica, or the Dominican Republic — I’ve seen how other people live and kind of taken that into my life and that’s made a big impact.”
Aryav Bothra is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl