Aaron Aquino


Stanford in Madrid, Spring 2016-17
Major: Computer Science
Minor: Spanish
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: This photo was taken at WOSAP's Evolution summer dance festival, which was my first time freestyling on stage in front of a live audience.


Why did you choose to study abroad in Madrid? 

I primarily chose Madrid because I wanted to hone my abilities in Spanish in an environment very different from home. A number of unique aspects of Spanish identity, such as the country's recent transition to democracy and the contrast between its different autonomous communities, also played a role in my decision to study there. Finally, the Madrid program would allow the possibility of traveling around Europe, which is something I had never been able to do before.

What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Madrid? 

I was equal parts nervous and excited before going abroad, as it would be my first time living far from home for an extended period of time. I was looking forward to practicing my Spanish and exploring a new part of the world, but at the same time I was uncertain about other potential challenges, such as integrating into my host family or dealing with FOMO. Overall I hoped that I would come away from my quarter abroad with a better understanding of myself.

After arriving in Madrid, it was certainly a bit difficult getting accustomed to speaking Spanish all the time, in addition to internalizing cultural norms. For instance, walking around barefoot is considered disrespectful in many households. But after getting past the whirlwind of the first week, I could already feel myself adjusting, which boosted my confidence and pushed me to keep growing. Feeling comfortable with my host family actually occurred more easily than I had expected. As soon as I arrived I made an effort to spend time with and get to know my host parents and their 2 year-old son, and they reciprocated in full by treating me as if I were truly a member of their household. In terms of homesickness and FOMO, these were sentiments that I felt to varying degrees throughout the quarter. Nevertheless, a balance of communicating with people back in the Bay and finding ways to immerse myself in my activities abroad meant that these feelings of missing home were nevertoo much to handle.

What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Madrid? 

One of the biggest academic benefits of my time abroad was having a quarter-long break from Computer Science classes. As a CS major, I had spent every quarter at Stanford so far taking at least one CS course. Consequently, studying in Madrid was a nice break from the techy grind and allowed me to focus fully on my Spanish minor, which involved taking courses related to Spanish culture, language/writing, and history.

That quarter my favorite course by far was OSPMADRD 43, which is dedicated to El Camino de Santiago, a centuries-old pilgrimage route that extends throughout Western Europe and ends in the town of Santiago de Compostela. In class we explored all aspects of the Camino, including its origins, its symbolism, and the myriad of reasons people continue to walk it today. But by far the best part of the class was the experience of hiking the final 110 km of the route. For me it was an incredible challenge that gave me not only an up-close perspective of Spain that not many people get but also a deeper understanding of my own physical and mental limits.

What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad? 

An important takeaway for me was learning how I adjust to new environments far away from my usual support network of friends and family. While the distance was certainly a challenge at times, overall it pushed me to meet new people, take the initiative to explore on my own, and generally try new experiences that I normally might turn down. I also gained a lot of self-confidence with regards to my ability to pick up a foreign language and actively participate in cultures that are very different from my own. Finally, my time in Madrid made me realize how much I appreciated certain aspects of home, whether it be the abundance of good Asian food or having my close friends nearby.

I made a point of journaling almost every day in Madrid, which helped me actively reflect on and internalize my experiences abroad. Some people use blogs or Instagram posts to remember their time abroad; whether it's through a digital or analog medium, I highly recommend finding something that works for you and sticking with it! It really helps with capturing a lot of the small moments and little details that you might not remember later :)

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it? 

During my second weekend in Madrid I decided to take a trip with some friends to visit Granada and Sevilla in the south of Spain. As someone who had never really lived far from home and had minimal experience with trip planning, I was pretty nervous in the days leading up to our departure. In addition to exploring another part of the country on our own, we would be also be utilizing travel services that I had never used before, such as Airbnb and BlaBlaCar (a long-distance ridesharing service). Finally, I felt like I was still getting used to Madrid itself, so the idea of already traveling to another region of Spain was a little overwhelming. But once I let go of my reservations, I found that I was able to have a really enjoyable time, from experiencing the breathtaking views at La Alhambra to witnessing massive Holy Week processions just a few feet away from me in Sevilla. And even when we ran into difficulties, such as when we discovered that our Airbnb didn't provide towels, my friends and I were always able to use our wits and Spanish skills to figure out solutions.

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make? 

I had heard before coming to Madrid that people there would not be as politically correct as those in the United States, and especially not as much as those inside the Stanford bubble. Despite knowing this, it was still fairly disorienting the first couple of weeks when I saw how often people would comment on my race. For instance, on one occasion my host dad joked that because of my ethnicity, I should be good friends with the previous Filipino student that stayed with his family, and another time my host mom commented how I should be part Japanese instead of part Chinese simply because the former are taller than the latter.

In these situations, especially as my Spanish was not nearly as strong as it is now, it was difficult to suppress my knee-jerk reaction of pointing out how off-base these sorts of assumptions were. With time, however, I slowly developed the confidence to politely speak up against these sorts of comments. And in my experience, when I did express an alternate point of view, the people I was talking with were usually quite open to hearing them. Although I was not always able to change their minds, calling attention to and discussing these issues helped all of us come to a better understanding of each other's respective cultures.

What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Madrid? 

My favorite part of my day-to-day routine was definitely spending time with my host family. Before leaving for Madrid I had requested to have younger children in the household because I thought it would be more fun and also be a good way to practice Spanish more colloquially. I found both of these things in Marcos, my adorable two and a half year-old host brother. In addition to teaching me how to become an expert player of El Escondite (the Spanish version of hide-and-seek), Marcos also introduced me to many children's TV shows, nursery rhymes, and new vocabulary (some of which he invented himself!) In all seriousness, I loved the experience of being an older brother for the quarter, which gave me insights into Spanish family life that not all of my peers were able to have. On top of all this, many of my favorite moments from Madrid were spent with my host family, from going on a city bike ride on El Día de San Isidro to watching my host parents sing at Marcos' pre-school graduation the day before I left.

What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Madrid? 

A cool aspect of the BOSP Madrid program is the 60-euro cultural subsidy each student receives, which encourages you to seek out events and activities that help you immerse yourself in the local community. I used the subsidy for activities ranging from the breathtaking Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona to the Arabic fortress of La Alhambra in Granada. But my favorite way of using the reimbursement was definitely at the WOSAP Dance School located in Madrid.

As a choreographer of Stanford's Common Origins urban/hip-hop dance team, I was a little sad at the idea of leaving my team and not being able to dance for an entire quarter. After searching around Madrid, however, I was able to find WOSAP, a dance school located just 15 minutes from my apartment that offers daily, affordable classes in a huge range of styles. The first classes I tried were so enjoyable that I ended up taking weekly classes for the remainder of the quarter. The experience helped me keep up my love of dance, improve my Spanish (learning choreography in a different language is definitely challenging, but I quickly concluded that dance is a universal language), and make friends with people outside of the BOSP program. The culmination of my training at WOSAP took place just a few days before I flew home, when I performed with my class at the school's annual summer dance festival.

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience? 

Life-shaping, tasty, challenging, reflective, siesta-filled

Fun Questions:

What was your favorite food you had in Madrid? 

It's not a food, but my go-to drink in Spain was tinto de verano, which is basically a mixture of red wine and sparkling lemon soda (you can substitute soda water as well). Super refreshing, and you can order it at any bar or restaurant.

What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?  

As mentioned above, I journaled pretty much every day, so my little Moleskine journal was definitely one of my most valuable possessions. In addition to writing in it, I filled my notebook with physical reminders of my adventures, from hostel receipts and business cards to museum tickets and menu snippets.

What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Madrid? 

Hrmm, this one's tricky, although it might be "Despacito" simply because of how often it got played at clubs…