Transformative Experience: Students Hike Spain’s Camino de Santiago

Exploring the sites and experiencing the culture of different countries is a must when studying abroad. A group of 10 UA students took it to a new level this summer.

The group hiked over 230 miles in 27 days from St. Jean Pied du Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, along the famous Camino de Santiago, a route traveled by pilgrims since the ninth century.

“As much prep as I did, nothing could have prepared me fully for what the experience would be,” said Nick Pate. “It was the hardest thing I had ever done while also being the most fun experience of my life.”

Nick Pate in Spain.
Nick Pate pictured on the mountains in Trabadelo, Spain.

Guided by history professors Drs. Margaret Peacock and Juan Ponce Vazquez, the students were immersed in multiple cultures as they were challenged both intellectually and physically.

“I organized this trip after hiking a portion of the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2019. I have been a long-distance thru-hiker for decades and have seen how hiking can teach some of life’s most important lessons,” Peacock explained.

Those lessons translated well for the students on this excursion.

Immersive Education

Sophia Biernat believes the trip made for an entirely unique learning experience.

“As we traveled across Spain on foot, we became active participants in our environment. Hiking through multiple regions of Spain helped us understand the distinct cultures and climates that exist within the country,” she said.

Ponce Vazquez is a native of Spain who has completed the hike before. He said the physical strenuousness of the trip didn’t detract from the academics.

“Margaret and I gave mini, impromptu lectures on the road about Iberian medieval history, current Spanish culture, outdoor leadership, the meanings of pilgrimage and many other topics. But the most incredible thing was that students ended up teaching each other,” he said.

“They gave presentations along the way of different sites: fortresses, monasteries, cathedrals. Two-thirds into the trip they could talk in elaborate ways about Romanesque and Gothic art, and they naturally gravitated towards and wanted to visit every historical building we found along the road.”

Hallie Brill and Sophia Biernat.
Hallie Brill and Sophie Biernat pose for a photo during a meal in front of the Burgos Cathedral.​

The pilgrimage, which the students documented on Instagram, not only took them out of the classroom but their comfort zones as well.

“This trip was meant for me to go on,” said Nathaniel Sonmez. “For me, the hike was about testing myself and proving that I could make it through something like this.”

“I had not been very physically active since high school and doing this hike enabled me to push my limits. I’ve become much more confident in myself and made friendships that I believe will last a long time,” added Summer Pettis.

“I can tell people that I’ve hiked across a country — how many people can say that?”

A Walk to Remember

Peacock and Ponce Vazquez created an experience the group won’t soon forget.

“Unlike most study abroad programs, students had to physically work really hard every day and we were right there with them every step of the way. It allowed us to get to know each other in ways that would be unthinkable in any other ordinary academic setting,” explained Ponce Vazquez.

“We laughed together, sang together, thought together and suffered together when our feet hurt at the end of the day.”

Friendships weren’t formed just between students.

Santiago de Compostela
Summer Pettis at the Santiago de Compostela during a 10 p.m. sunset.

“We got to see so many things that normally wouldn’t be accessible on a normal study abroad trip, but this trip also allowed for us to build better connections with our professors since the group was so small and always together,” said Sonmez.

Study abroad opportunities can be life-changing for the teachers as well.

“Between us, we were able to create an exciting, challenging and safe experience for the students. It is hard to put into words how transformative this experience was,” said Peacock.

“When I feel anxious or stressed, I remember the quiet of the ninth-century churches that we visited in every village, the expanse of the land as it stretched out before us and the capacity that all of us have to face any challenge when we have our friends with us.”

Added Ponce Vazquez, “This was a transformative experience that will stay with students for the rest of their lives. It will certainly stay with me. I consider myself lucky for having been able to walk alongside my colleague and this incredible group of young men and women.”

Scenes from the Journey

The Rio Mino in Galicia.
An early-morning view of the Rio Mino, the longest river in Galicia, from the city of Portomarin.
A group of cows resting in grass along a dirt road.
On the portion of the hike from Roncesvalles to Zubiri, cows greeted the hikers.
A statue of Santiago.
A statue of Santiago overlooks a misty mountain view from Refuge Orisson, a rest stop nestled in the Pyrenees.
A mountain-top view of a Spanish city.
One of the amazing views along the way.

Visit the Capstone International Center website to learn more about UA’s other study abroad opportunities.