Introducing SPI Student Blogger: Gaby Wheatley!



At SPI, we’re lucky to facilitate great study abroad experiences for amazing high school students who, no doubt, are going to leave their mark on the world. Gaby Wheatley, a high school junior from Austin, can count herself among those amazing students.

This year will be Gaby’s 2nd time studying abroad with us, so we asked her to write a blog post about what she loved most and how the experience influenced her! Gaby enthusiastically said, “Sure, I could do that!” and sent us this gem of a post. Without further delay, here is what it’s like to study abroad with SPI, as written by one of our alumni. Thanks, Gaby! 

My name is Gaby Wheatley and I studied abroad with SPI. I smile every time I say that. Every time I even hear about Spain I am filled with nostalgia and a craving to do it all over again. I am 17 years old and I spent my past summer in San Sebastián immersing myself into the Spanish culture. Fortunately, my parents are big travelers so I have been able to accompany them and see a lot of the world. I had a lot of practice being in different cultures, but I didn’t really appreciate my blessings until I did it on my own. When I say “on my own,” I just mean without my parents (I went with my best friend Caroline). Going to a foreign country without my mom and dad caused me to look at traveling in a different way. In fact, it caused me to look at life in a different way.

I remember taking my first steps into the Spanish culture (the Madrid airport). I felt different. In a good way. I felt so big, so confident, and so happy.  I mean, of course I felt pretty cool. I had just taken a 7 hour flight across the Atlantic without the help of my parents. In that moment I realized I am a beast, no question about it.

"In that moment I realized I am a beast, no question about it."
Gaby and her best friend Caroline atop the Palacio de Cibeles during the Madrid Experience

My best friend, Caroline, and I went on the Madrid extension and explored the beautiful cathedrals, palaces, and ancient sights of the romantic city. Such a big city. It required lots of walking, energy, and of course Spanish speaking. The truth is, I started the trip without even knowing how to order something in Spanish! When I realized this I wondered how I was supposed to eat paella and the delicious pastries I had been dreaming about for months. This lead me to having to step out of my comfort zone for the first time. I may have felt confident getting off the plane but as soon as I started craving Spanish cuisine I got a little anxious thinking about interacting in a different language. I knew I needed to leave my fears behind so I observed what looked like a native Spaniard order a cup of ice cream. He said, “Quisiera un helado de chocolate.”

Phew. A hungry American like me was relieved to have learned how to order ice cream.

At the beginning, it was a little scary, but after that awkward first time, I became a pro ice cream orderer. And trust me, once you arrive in Spain you need to be a pro because their ice cream is to die for.

No joke, the helado is amazing
No joke, the helado is amazing (Photo cred: Elizabeth Gill)

On top of stepping outside of the box and learning to speak Spanish with confidence, I discovered the true feeling of peace (high schoolers sometimes forget what that feels like during a busy school year). The Spanish culture is so laid back and welcoming. Everyone, from my home stay parents to the surfing instructors, was so kind and I surprisingly felt more at home in San Sebastián than I do in Austin. During this trip, I found my home away from home and I also started to realize I love traveling.

Gaby didn't just learn how to surf, she learned how to selfie while surfing. Impresionante!
Gaby didn’t just learn how to surf, she learned how to selfie while surfing. Impresionante!

I felt like I really grew up on this trip. Not physically (I’ve been 5’2 for the past 6 years) but mentally. I found my identity and I got to watch a lot of other teens experience the same. In addition to this, I was being myself and so was everyone else studying with SPI. All of us were already stepping outside of our comfort zones by leaving the country that it made it easier to be who we truly are. Since I’ve been back in Austin, I have continued being myself and I am so much happier.

Although I can’t travel during the school year, I can still dream of it. The closest way I could mentally travel was by starting a Study Abroad Club at my school and start my own blog. It doesn’t stop there; I wanted to encourage other teens to travel so I have created a travel blog  renaming myself Global Gaby. After having a life changing experience in San Sebastián, I felt it was my duty to show teens how immersing yourself into a different country can create a positive change in your life.

Gaby's Pinterest account (@globalgaby) - her way of "mentally" traveling the world during the school year.
Gaby has already amassed more than 1,000 followers on her Pinterest account (Global Gaby) . It’s her way of “mentally” traveling the world during the school year.

After my return to Austin I felt deprived of fun but extremely blessed for being able to study abroad. It got me thinking how a lot of teens are missing out, not because they choose to miss out but because they can’t. There are teens around the world who want to explore places outside of their city but don’t have the financial support to do so. By this point, I was actually getting a little angry. Every teenager deserves a life changing experience like this one. It’s eye opening and brings pure joy and it’s not fair that people who can afford it get the experience this while others can’t. I then got together with Caroline and created a non-profit organization named Over the Seas Foundation. We hope to keep this organization growing so every teen with a desire to step outside their comfort zone can!

We can’t wait for Gaby to study with us in Spain again! After reading this post, we think you’d understand why. She is just one of the many great SPI students who choose to use their summer not only improve their proficiency in another language, but also have a ton of fun! Thanks again, Gaby, for the great student perspective! 

If you’re an SPI student traveling this summer (or an alumni) and want to share your experience or what you’re looking forward to, send a quick email to Justine, [email protected], with your post or idea. We’d love to hear what you have to say!

A Life-changing Experience!

Get ready to experience and SPI Abroad program yourself. Learn more about our programs or request more information today.

Request Your Catalog Today.

Fill out the form below and we will send you a catalog and get in touch. Please note all fields are required.

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Request Your Catalog Today.

Fill out the form below and we will send you a catalog and get in touch. Please note all fields are required.

A Life-changing Experience!

Get ready to experience and SPI Abroad program yourself. Learn more about our programs or request more information today.

Request Your Catalog Today.

Fill out the form below and we will send you a catalog and get in touch. Please note all fields are required.

On-Site Supervision Team Abroad

We hire bilingual high school teachers, university professors, and caring local staff who, as a team, serve as international “moms and dads” throughout the program. Directors actively participate in all aspects of the immersion experience: helping with housing adjustments, checking in on classes, and making sure students are taking advantage of the wonderful excursion and activity opportunities. All SPI staff go through extensive reference checks.

Training & Experience

Directors are selected based on their experience working with teenagers in an international setting, their ability to communicate fluently in the language of study, and their academic & professional background. All on-site staff go through an intensive training process.

Daily Supervision

Students are expected to be respectful of their directors’ guidelines and abide by the SPI standards of conduct at all times. SPI directors and program staff are available 24 hours a day. Directors check in with students on a daily basis in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings; they also frequently monitor all aspects of each student’s progress. Homestays and residence directors are contacted to learn how students are adjusting, and to handle any concerns. Daily curfews are enforced.

Student Behavior Expectations

Since 1996, we have proudly attracted an academically-minded student body focused on improving their language skills and growing from cultural experiences. At SPI, we take our role as teachers seriously — we recognize that we are responsible for guiding students through one of their most life-changing experiences. We expect students not only to abide by our standards of conduct at all times, but also to serve as ambassadors of their local communities, schools, and cities.

No Alcohol Policy

SPI maintains a strict policy against the use of alcohol. Directors check in with students in the evenings; however, parents are expected to review our standards of conduct with their children and set clear family expectations prior to the start of the program with regards to their behavior abroad.

Afternoon Elective Activities

Our meaningful afternoon elective activities make local culture, art, architecture, museums, sports, and attractions come to life! Each program offers a variety of engaging activities designed to combine serious fun with truly inspiring “once in a lifetime” experiences. Electives are not included in the program price, and we suggest students budget $100 per week for participation in these incredible learning experiences.

Common Afternoon Electives

CULTURAL: Cooking, Dance, Art & Architecture, Museum & Theater Visits, Local Sporting & Cultural Events

SPORTS: Surfing, Volleyball, Soccer, Kayaking, Snorkeling, Hikes & Walks

ENRICHMENT: Photography, College Prep (Essay Writing, Admissions Prep), Photography, Guest Speakers

Sample Travel Excursions

SPAIN: Bilbao, Pamplona, Santander, San Sebastian, Guernika, Biarritz (France), Comillas, Picos de Europa

FRANCE: Bordeaux, Bayonne, Anglet, San Sebastian (Spain), St. Jean de Luz, Pyrenees Mountains

COSTA RICA: Liberia, Cloud Forest, Puntarenas, Rincon de la Vieja, Tamarindo Beach

ITALY: Florence, Orvieto, San Gimignano, San Vincezo, Castiglione della Pescaia

Our Screening & Selection Process

Students live with roommates in a local homestay or student residence that is experienced in hosting foreign students. SPI has worked with most participating homestays and student residences for a number of years, and they understand students are there to learn the language and experience the culture. SPI diligently screens each homestay and student residence facility with the following in mind: safety, location, cleanliness, and previous experience hosting students.


Most homestays have hosted students for many years and take their jobs and duties as cultural ambassadors very seriously. Our foreign schools also work with each family on a year-round basis to ensure a positive experience is had by each student. It is critical to understand that most homestays come from humble means and different dynamics.

Location of Housing

All housing options are located within a 10-30 minute commute from the school. Students will walk or take the local bus, which is a safe and normal way for students their age to get around in our host cities. The majority of our housing options are located in the same areas where students will be close to each other.

Evening Curfews

Student curfews are set based on what a culturally appropriate weekday and weekend curfew would be for teenagers in the country of study. This is normally between 10 PM – 11 PM on weekdays and a little later on the weekends depending on location and group dynamic. As an important safety measure, program staff diligently monitor student curfews. Specific curfews are listed on each program page for your reference. 

Typical Housing Dynamics

Students are well supported in all housing options and are provided with: meals, a living and study space, laundry service or facilities, linens and towels. It is fundamental that students have an open mind to trying new foods and living in an environment different than “home” to benefit from this transformative experience!

Although SPI homestays come in all shapes and sizes, the majority are older couples or single/widowed women in their 50s – 60s who have extra room in their home and are eager to host students. We have found this dynamic provides the best support, the most interaction, and the most culturally rich experience. Some homestays do have children, but students should keep in mind that homestays with children are busier and often offer less interaction — much like a busy American family.

Language Course Overview

The language courses focus on developing communication skills by simulating real-life situations through interactive class activities that include writing, oral expression, film, music, food, and literature.

> 2 Hours – Grammatical Concepts

> 1-2 Hours – Conversation, Culture, Literature, Film, etc.

> Small class sizes with levels 1 through AP/IB

College Credit Opportunity

SPI uses foreign universities and accredited language institutes for coursework abroad. These institutions provide high school students, upon successful completion of their courses, with an official transcript that they may use to petition college credit from their future university or college. Official transcripts are first sent to SPI in September, and then we will mail an official copy of the transcript in a sealed envelope to each participant. You will mail the official transcript packet directly to your U.S. university once you are enrolled.

Credit Hours vs. Credit Granted

Most SPI language immersion programs give 30-80 contact hours, or classroom hours, enabling for a potential of up to 1-6 semester college credit hours by your university. Contact hours are treated differently at every school. Some schools will grant specific class credit for the hours (e.g., Spanish), although most give a general foreign language or elective credit. Normally, 15 Contact/Class Hours = 1 College Credit Hour.

IMPORTANT:  Due to the nature of college credit granting by each individual U.S. university, it is impossible for SPI to guarantee credit for any student.