“I was the worst in my class,” said Brendan Regan, ’08, of his high school Spanish language experience. “I’m not joking. I was really bad at it.”

Regan’s Richmond professors scoff. The idea that the double major in psychology and Spanish wasn’t a natural Spanish speaker in high school seems preposterous now. Regan worked so hard to immerse himself in the Spanish language and culture during his four years at Richmond that there are moments in conversation now when he has to search for the right words—in English.

At a university where nearly 70 percent of students study abroad, it’s no surprise that Regan spent a semester studying Spanish in Seville. How he harnessed that experience when he returned to Richmond is what is really exceptional.

“In the Pennsylvania community where I grew up, the town next door, Kennett Square, is the mushroom capital of the world. The town is a quarter Hispanic, and I always heard Spanish spoken there. As a kid, I thought it’d be really cool to learn a second language,” said Regan. “When I came to Richmond, I didn’t know what I would major in but for the first four semesters, I always took a Spanish class.”

Regan was considering a career as a physical therapist, but his first-year advisor was Aurora Hermida-Ruiz, an associate professor in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Studies and a native of Spain.

“I don’t even call her an advisor. I call her a friend,” said Regan.

Regan was considering where he would study abroad and Hermida-Ruiz encouraged him to study in her hometown of Seville.

“My intention was to improve my language skills and immerse myself in the language and culture, but I became more immersed than I ever thought I would. I took classes on the history and culture of Spain and really enjoyed them. I had friends who spent their time traveling all over Europe while they were abroad, but I was so into Spain that I didn’t bounce all over. With the exception of day trips to Morocco and Portugal, I just stuck to Spain.”

Regan returned to Richmond with one thing on his mind—finding a way to return to the country he had grown to love. With his senior thesis looming, a medieval Spanish class that Regan had taken in Seville turned into his return ticket.

“In the class, I’d learned about el Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James,” said Regan.

The pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the apostle St. James the Great are believed to be buried, has attracted believers for over 1,000 years. The trek (or series of treks) runs across Galicia in northwestern Spain and can take weeks or even months to complete on foot, depending on one’s starting point.

Regan, who was baptized Catholic but raised Protestant, consulted with both his Spanish advisors and his psychology advisors to create a workable research plan. They soon settled on a project comparing the medieval pilgrim with his modern counterpart. Of course, to properly study the psychology of belief, Regan would need to travel back to Spain and participate in the pilgrimage himself. A Weinstein grant from the Office of International Education funded the trip.

Regan traveled as a pilgrim for three weeks, collecting stamps in his credencial, or pilgrim’s passport, at the albergues, or hostels, along the route. To cover more ground and as a result of a bad foot, he opted to bicycle, stopping along the way to talk to pilgrims about their motivations for making the journey.

“At any given albergue, there might be 40 to 50 pilgrims. They arrive with sleeping bags and spend the evenings sharing their stories. Some people cook, some people go out to dinner, college students like me eat bread and peanut butter,” said Regan. “Every continent and all different religions were represented. People had all different kinds of motivations for making the pilgrimage. Some come on a promise, some come out of praise, tons of people come because they just want to get away from life. They want a simple task with plenty of time to think.”

When Regan would explain to people why he himself had made the trip, to hear their stories, they grew excited and shared their experiences freely. One man had made a promise to a sick grandmother; another had conquered cancer. Regan filled his evenings sharing in his companions’ chatter, laughter and even, occasionally, tears.  

Back in the United States once more, Regan didn’t let his Spanish get rusty. He was awarded the David C. Burhans Civic Fellowship from the Center for Civic Engagement and used it to return home to Pennsylvania to work for a 4-H program run through the Penn State Cooperative Extension. With a group of other young people, he traveled to Spanish-speaking migrant communities to work with the families, particularly the children, on their Spanish and English language skills and encourage positive life decisions.

“We’d visit 15 different sites per week, spending one to two hours at a time with kids who ranged in age from four to nineteen,” said Regan.

Regan and the other volunteers would conduct a reading exercise, a physical activity and some kind of game on each visit. By the end of the summer, Regan was seeing the kids make such marked progress that he made the commitment to return the following summer, after graduation. When the summer ends, however, he’s not sure what will happen next.

“I should really have a plan,” Regan joked. “What I’d really like to do is spend a year in Spain and become as fluent in Spanish as possible, really embrace the culture and come back to do a year of service in South America. Eventually, I’d like to go to graduate school in Latin American and Iberian studies.”

While Regan was home over the summer working, he stopped by his old high school to visit his former Spanish teacher.

“When I told her what I’ve been up to, she looked at me in total disbelief,” Regan laughed.