Since the founding of our first Spanish Center in Madrid in 1964, the country’s cultural and academic landscape has undergone a transformation. And IES Abroad was in the midst of it all. Today, we’ve since expanded in Spain with three other Centers: Salamanca, Barcelona, and Granada. In honor of our 50th anniversary, we take a look back with Madrid Center co-founder and former Spanish Ambassador to the U.S., Antonio de Oyarzábal, to see how our humble beginnings have evolved and Spain’s times have changed.
A Time for Change
Fifty years ago, in 1964, Spain was under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and was suffering the economic and social effects of the Civil War. Although the country had been a member of the United Nations since 1955, it was still largely isolated from the international community and was stuck in a depression. Among those with hopes for democracy and a brighter future were two young Spanish diplomats working in Madrid’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They were Marcelino Oreja, who went on to be a prominent politician and public servant; and de Oyarzábal, who among other accomplishments, helped write a constitution for Spanish Guinea, which was about to become the newly independent nation of Equatorial Guinea.
“At that time, Spain was politically very isolated,” says de Oyarzábal. “Yet among diplomats, we had our door open to the world and were ready to play our part.”
They did, indeed, when Oreja met a young Austrian with an interesting proposal at a summer course in 1962. The Austrian was IES Abroad co-founder Paul Koutny, who shared with the diplomat his vision of bringing young Americans to Europe. Koutny had successfully launched programs in Vienna, Freiburg, and Paris and looked to the young diplomat to start one in Madrid.
Oreja began working on Koutny’s idea and joined forces with de Oyarzábal a year later in Madrid. “We thought it was a good idea to have young people from the U.S. see a different Spain and create a bridge between our countries,” says de Oyarzábal. “We started moving around to see what we could do and one of the first things was to put the program under the protection of the Foreign Ministry.”
A Daring New Beginning
While still working other various jobs at the Ministry, de Oyarzábal and his colleagues drew together the humble beginnings of what is now one of IES Abroad’s most successful programs. To staff the Center, they had their pick of a very prolific crop of professors. Madrid University had expelled its faculty for political reasons. “The professors took attitudes that were considered very critical and against the dictatorship,” explains de Oyarzábal. “So harsh measures were taken against them and they found themselves on the street. These highly intelligent, highly philosophical academics now had problems surviving.”
De Oyarzábal offered the professors jobs, introducing the fact that the new Madrid Center would be a new beginning and a hope for a brighter tomorrow. They agreed and at the Center’s opening in 1964, the first group of 11 students arrived. Among the faculty was Antonio Truyol, who went on to become the founding director of the Department of International Relations of the Universidad Complutense and Justice of the Spanish Constitutional Court.
In the beginning, the founders devoted as much time as they could to the Center, doing a little bit of everything—accounting, directing, and even taking students sightseeing. “Everyone had to find their balance, but it was a lot of fun and the Americans started to really know Spain and the good word started to spread around. Our numbers grew and after three years, we had nearly 50 students,” says de Oyarzábal.
A Bridge Built
After three years in charge, the founders had accomplished what they set out to do. They had an official building with a secretary and two classrooms, and things were growing at a steady pace. They decided to find permanent directors who would take the Center to the next level.
Dictator Franco died in 1975 and Spain became a democracy. Meanwhile, IES Abroad students were finding adventures of their own. In the 1970s, they routinely met with King Juan Carlos in an effort to forge kinship. Academic interests evolved, too. Students started approaching their courses with a more critical mind, latching onto subjects like engineering and economics.
“It opened the eyes of young people. The bridge we wanted was being built,” de Oyarzábal says.
IES Abroad in Spain Today
Three IES Abroad Centers in Spain followed. In 1991, the Salamanca Center opened, attracting students to its home on the Castilian plateau 100 miles west of Madrid. The University of Salamanca is the oldest in Spain and its historical campus is a true hub of activity. In 2002, IES Abroad Barcelona opened, beckoning with international influences and history as a home to artists such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. The Granada Center opened shortly thereafter in 2005, offering a window to Spain’s unique historical symbiosis of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Looking back, it’s clear that what lures students to Spain today—music, dance, miles upon miles of untamed landscape—was there all along; it just needed to be trumpeted to the outside. Today, all of this and more is embraced by IES Abroad students, once a few 11 in Madrid, and now more than 1,300 annually across Spain.
“I look back and see a success story...something of a golden jubilee,” says de Oyarzábal. “I feel very proud. It has fulfilled the founders’ hopes and dreams.”