Learning abroad, as both student and teacher

Andrea Lopez posing on a beach in Northern Spain

When Andrea Lopez was a student at NAU, she was “passionately dedicated to bridging the gap” between international and domestic students. That wasn’t the defining factor for the path she took—spending a year studying and working in Spain and Costa Rica as an undergraduate and now teaching in Spain for a year on a Fulbright scholarship—but the focus on international connections in her hometown helped prepare her to live and work internationally.

Lopez, an Honors College student who graduated in May with degrees in biology and modern languages, is now halfway through her Fulbright year in Spain. She is teaching English at a secondary school in Cambre, Galicia, in the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula. When she found out in June that she’d received a Fulbright allowing her this opportunity, it was extra welcome news since she was originally an alternate. 

“It was so surreal,” Lopez said of the day her status was updated. “I really wasn’t expecting to hear any good news at that point, so I was over the moon to hear that I had actually made it into the program!”

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program, of which the Fulbright Scholarships are a part, aims to create global connections by providing opportunities for U.S. students and young professionals to research, teach or study abroad.

It was an opportunity Lopez had been preparing for since her first day as a Lumberjack. 

“Throughout my time at NAU, I have never met a student with such intentionality, kindness, dedication and all-around brilliance,” said Lee Griffin, who has been Lopez’s mentor since 2018. “Andrea Lopez truly has shown her commitment to excelling in life inside and outside of the classroom.”

Interested in applying for a Fulbright or other international scholarship? Explore the resources available in NAU’s Office of National and International Scholarships and Fellowships. 

Studying, living and working in Spain 

Screenshot of a map showing the location of Cambre, Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain
Lopez is teaching English in Cambre, Galicia, in the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula.

Originally from Flagstaff, Lopez knew she needed to push herself out of her comfort zone during her time at NAU. She found that experience in Interdisciplinary Global Programs (IGP), a two-semester study abroad program. IGP allows students to spend one semester attending classes and a second semester in an internship or research post, where they can apply their classroom knowledge.  

Lopez said committing to IGP propelled her through her Spanish classes.

“Even if I got nervous, I knew I wouldn’t back down because three years of preparation led up to my study abroad experience,” Lopez said. “Additionally, this program allowed me to go into more depth with Spanish than I would get with a minor while still studying biology as my primary major, which was very appealing to me.”

As an undergrad, she studied at La Universidad de Jaén in Jaén, Andalucia, in southern Spain. Her life is the same—but different—now that she lives in Galicia. The cultural similarities and differences between the two regions mean every day now is an adventure for Lopez, even as she is surrounded by familiar sights and sounds. 

Her work is similar. In many ways, education is the same no matter the language; Lopez connects with teachers and students, prepares lesson plans and walks her Spanish students through the convoluted rules of the English language. But the Spanish school system is different from American systems, and she said it required significant adjustment on her part to get used to teaching.

After returning from Spain in early 2022, Lopez packed her bags again and headed south to do field research on an invasive plant in Coto Brus, Costa Rica, which she presented at the Honors Symposium and the IGP Summit—the second time, completely in Spanish.

Studying, living and working at NAU 

Andrea Lopez posing in front of a Fulbright sign and wearing a nametag
When Lopez found out she’d received a Fulbright in June, “it was so surreal,” she said.

It wasn’t just IGP that prepared Lopez for her Fulbright work. Her experiences in the Honors College allowed her to explore a variety of interests and work out what she wanted to do and where she wanted to do it.  

Of course, Lopez still doesn’t have an answer to those questions. The spring semester in Spain just started, and it’s keeping her busy for now. Lopez said she’s deciding between a career in youth education and one in entomology, or the study of insects. Ideally, she said, she’ll find a career path that combines those interests and allows her to travel.

“NAU helped foster my interest and preparedness for an interdisciplinary and international career,” she said. “Because of my challenging and unconventional study abroad experience through the IGP, I have the confidence and adaptability to follow my aspirations wherever they may take me and forge my own path.” 

Griffin, now assistant director of learning and development in Human Resources, said Lopez involved herself in a wide variety of extracurricular activities—the International Club, the Wildlife Society’s NAU chapter, the Buddhism Meditation and Well-Being Club, the Honors College Short Plays and the NAUghty Bits Improv Troupe, to name just a few. She also won several awards and scholarships, including the Gold Axe Award, the Borozan Memorial Modern Languages Scholarship and an IGP graduating senior award. 

Even when the pandemic hit, potentially sidelining Lopez’s opportunity to study abroad, she remained focused. Griffin and Lopez met regularly to talk about Lopez’s education. 

“I witnessed Andrea navigate deep personal struggles and loss while continuing to be a beacon of positivity for her peers,” Griffin said. “Even in the face of global uncertainty, Andrea leaped at the opportunity to study abroad when the borders opened. Navigating a new culture, environment and university was challenging, but Andrea provided to be resilient and resourceful.”  

Thinking of applying for a Fulbright? 

Lopez’s advice to Fulbright hopefuls: Go for it, even if you think it’s a long shot. Even the application process offers valuable lessons in how to craft essays, connect with mentors for recommendations and review and accept constructive criticism. 

“It’s a long application process, but it’s so worth it. And if you get the grant, fantastic! But even if you don’t, all the time and effort you put into the process will pay off,” Lopez said. “The Fulbright application process trains you to write about yourself, which I know is something I always struggled to do previously, and this is a skill that will help greatly when applying for grad school and other scholarships or grants.” 


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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 | heidi.toth@nau.edu

NAU Communications