Lourdes Sánchez-López, Ph.D., made her first trip to the United States from her hometown of Jaén in Spain in 1987 as a 17-year-old high school exchange student.

Lourdes Sánchez-López and Sheri Spaine Long recently were honored by the University of Jaén in Spain for their efforts in establishing an international education exchange program between UAB and the University of Jaén.

She left behind the olive trees and beauty of Jaén, located in Andalusia, for what she was certain would be the glitz and glamour of the States. After all, that’s the way movies portrayed America. But when she arrived, she was instead introduced to Fort Central High School in Piper City, Ill., and cornfields that stretched for miles and miles.

“It wasn’t Malibu, California,” Sánchez-López says, recalling those cornfields. “But that year-long trip was a very enriching experience that I wouldn’t exchange for anything.”

In fact, Sánchez-López loved it so much that she continued to enroll in exchange programs through college, and later the UAB assistant professor of Spanish worked with Foreign Languages Chair Sheri Spaine Long, Ph.D., to establish an international education exchange program with the University of Jaén. The two recently were honored for their efforts.

“For me, it was the best honor I could ever have received,” Sánchez-López says. “Jaén is my home town. That’s my city. That’s my school and my professors.

“I never would have imagined coming to the U.S. and creating an exchange program between universities and then being honored for that,” she said. “There are no words to express how honored I am to have this program between UAB and the University of Jaén.”

Long, also studied in Andalusia, was equally pleased to return to the region to receive such an honor.

“UAB really is trying to promote international education to our undergraduates, and Jaén is doing the same thing with its students,” Long says. “I see this as a vibrant, cooperative enterprise that will go on for years.”

UAB and the University of Jaén began discussions on the program three years ago. Sánchez-López and Sarah Culver, Ph.D., associate professor of business, took the first group of almost 30 UAB students abroad in May 2005. Two University of Jaén students are at UAB this semester, and John K. Moore, Ph.D., assistant professor of Spanish, is taking another group of students to Jaén in May.

There are several aspects to the partnership that make the program successful, say Long and Sánchez-López. One is that Jaén is not a trendy tourist destination. The southern city in Spain doesn’t have international hot spots where students can go and encounter others who speak English. At the other end of the spectrum, says Long, students can go to other international study destinations, such as Mexico, and never have to speak Spanish.

“Our students get to study in another culture,” Sánchez-López says. “The program makes them explore the city. It makes them travel. In addition to classes they have site visits. It’s a hands-on program. But the beauty of the program is that there is no way around the students speaking Spanish. And when the students come back, they really feel good about themselves. They’ve had to do things on their own.”

Jaén’s booming olive business also is an excellent case study for UAB’s business students, says Long. And then there is Jaén’s rich history. Palaces and castles built in the seventh and 10th centuries can be studied and admired. The stone roads and walkways in the city have been there for more than 15 centuries, making the city a walk through time.

“That’s what the program is about,” Sánchez-López says. “It’s not just practicing and learning Spanish. It’s a huge experience, a personal experience. They come back more mature.”

Long says the students who participate in it have been some of the best spokespeople for the program.

“Students will tell each other their experiences in Jaén, and it definitely has made other students more interested in studying there,” Long says. “The word of mouth on this program has been strong. And UAB Study Abroad Director Josh Carter also has done a great job of promoting the program.”