UVA in Valencia Over Four Decades


UVA in Valencia Over Four Decades

Fernando Operé, founder and director of UVA in Valencia, shares his thoughts on building a successful program.
Fernando Operé headshot

ernando Operé teaches colonial and 19th century Latin American literature and Spanish and Latin American poetry in UVA’s Spanish, Italian and Portuguese department. As founder and director of UVA’s Valencia program, he looks back as the program celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Operé: I was born in Madrid and studied at the University of Barcelona. After a few years teaching at a business school, Management School de Barcelona, I came to the United States along with my wife Carrie B. Douglass to do our PhDs at the University of Virginia. I received my doctorate in history and began teaching at the UVA in 1980. 

When did the Valencia program start? What were your goals when you started the program?

Operé: Some UVA students who had been in Valencia encouraged me to establish a program in that beautiful Mediterranean city. In 1982, I traveled to Valencia and with the help of some contacts in the city, both institutions (UVA and the University of Valencia) negotiated an agreement to start offering classes for our American students. In my original conversation with officials from the University of Valencia, Enrique Celma, a businessman from Valencia, was present. The agreement with the University of Valencia was that they would provide professors and classrooms, we would provide students, and Enrique Celma would provide the infrastructure. 

The beginning was hard. I had to do practically everything– design the academic program, recruit students, establish contacts with other institutions, and create an infrastructure that could take care of the students when they arrived. Luckily the program grew rapidly with the help of the University’s Spanish Department and many of its professors. In a few years the program grew in popularity and, at the same time, the number of majors in Spanish increased.

How has the program grown over the last four decades?

Operé: The program has changed a lot in these past 40 years. It has grown in size and in institutional support with the help of the International Studies Office (ISO) staff. Relations with the University of Valencia created a very fruitful exchange of professors, and the Valencia program was also noticed by UVA leaders. In 2003, we decided to separate from the University of Valencia and become independent. The intervention of the former president John Casteen, who visited Valencia at that time, was fundamental in the transition. We secured a building in Valencia to serve as the UVA in Valencia Center and got official approval to give UVA academic credits to students who took classes in the program. That was a pivotal moment. We were able to hire full-time teachers and expand our class offerings.

Fernando with students in Valencia
Professor Fernando Operé with Students in Valencia. Photo Credit: Fernando Operé

What are some of your favorite memories from the program?

Operé: Nearly 12,000 students have studied in the program since 1983. At first, we offered semester classes, but soon we began offering summer classes, too. The number of students increased. I remember that in the early summers my wife helped with our many needs, and even my mother went to take care of our children while I taught and took the students to cultural activities in the afternoon and evening. It was a family teamwork. The role of SPU, a company with which we worked for years, was also fundamental. They took care of the infrastructure, looking for families to host the students, organizing trips and excursions, and responding to all the student needs.

How have you kept in touch with the students after they graduate? What are some of them doing?

Operé: Through these years in classes and on trips I have had relationships with many former students whom I now consider to be my friends. The program changed the lives of many of them, it influenced them, it made them more international, more open, and they became global citizens in a very complicated world. I have received many, many letters and emails from students or alumni with extraordinary professional careers who credit Valencia for some of their professional success. In some way, I represent Valencia and Spain for them, I suppose. Most of them use Spanish to communicate.

Berry Freckmann and his brother, Chad Freckmann, are today two of my best friends. Berry went to Valencia with the first group in 1984, and after his graduation he moved to the Czech Republic. We still write to each other frequently. Every time he comes to Charlottesville we get together along with his brother Chad, who lives in Charlottesville. Chad is my weekly companion for hiking in the mountains and road biking. Chad’s daughter Gaby Freckmann also attended Valencia for one semester. Many Valencia alumni have sent their own children to Valencia; my three children, Philip Operé, Peter Operé, and Camila Operé, also studied in Valencia for an entire year. For them, Valencia is another home.

Mercedes Herrero attended Valencia for a semester and also acted in some of my theater productions. After graduation she went to Yale University to do a MA in Fine Arts in Drama. She became a professional actress and worked on Broadway and in television films for many years, and I enjoyed watching her in some of her roles.

Professor Fernando  Operé with Students               Photo Credit: Fernando  Operé
Professor Fernando Operé with Students in Valencia. Photo Credit: Fernando Operé

As you look forward to the next decade, what are your hopes and dreams?

Operé: In recent years, other departments, not necessarily just language departments, have begun to show interest in having their students live an experience abroad. We currently offer in Valencia classes in Engineering, History, Politics, Pre-Health, Nursing, etc. Hopefully the future for the program is to continue growing, expanding the courses offered in Spanish appropriate to many academic disciplines.

The success of the UVA in Valencia Program has been one of the most gratifying, as well as enjoyable, experiences of my academic career. The new strategic plan proposes that all UVA undergraduate students have at least one international experience before they graduate. We are getting closer to that goal with the successful Valencia program and my hope is that in the future that goal will be fulfilled.